Martin Luther King III opened a presentation Wednesday morning before about 600 Miami-Dade middle and high school students with a bit of his late father’s oratorical flair.
“Spread the word. You are going to be a great generation,” he said, commanding his audience to repeat the lines, each time adding emphasis to the concluding sentence in a voice that rang with strength and purpose.
King, 55, eldest son of the late civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, was 10 when his father was slain by an assassin in Memphis at the age of 39. As the 45th anniversary of that day approaches in April, King, father to a 4-year-old daughter, continues to promote his own father’s message of non-violence and the need for equal opportunity.
During his 25-minute address to students and staff at Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, King highlighted goal-setting, personal responsibility and diversity, a practice that “teaches us to be open-minded.” And he told of early morning breakfasts at the family table while his preacher and activist father and his four children bonded over biscuits and Bible verses before Sunday school.
“Sometimes I fell asleep, I’ll tell you the truth,” King said with a chuckle as he spoke of his father’s values and a belief system that championed non-violence. He described growing up in a single-parent home after his father was killed. Celebrities like singers Sammy Davis, Jr. and Harry Belafonte and actor Sidney Poitier, along with regular folk and reporters, were frequent visitors to the King household, “and mother always had enough dinner to make sure everyone was comfortable.”
King was at times amusing, as he spoke of history and contemporary America.
“Today, we have a much better nation. We have a much more diverse nation. We have a much more tolerant nation. We’ve got to go beyond tolerance. Tolerance is just a start, it’s not where we want to end up,” he said. “You can ‘tolerate’ me, but right now some of you are like, ‘Hurry up and finish!’
“ That’s tolerance.”
King also turned serious as he realized that so much of his father’s work in the 1960s is yet to be done.
“In Florida during the election cycle last year we heard about obstacles put in place and whether people would be able to vote. The scenario to make it difficult to vote, that’s just not right,” King said.
After he spoke at the private Episcopal school, and as he met with students and faculty, King said the experience was “very positive.”
Children, like eighth-grader Ethan Hill and junior Hallie Parten, who represented a group of about 15 Breakthrough Miami students who came from Leisure City K-8 Center, had delivered stirring introductory speeches they had worked on with Palmer Trinity’s Diversity Coordinator Koreé Hood. The upper school choir sang Moses Hogan’s I Am His Child. And King, who has served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and is a co-founder of Realizing the Dream Inc., felt he connected and met his primary objective.
“I hope that the students were able to gather something from the message. In America, we have diversity of every ethnic group and all cultures but the question is whether the quality of education is the same everywhere. And it probably isn’t. The goal is that every generation has some level of obligation to give something back. What I’m always promoting, and what the school may be promoting as well, is that the world belongs to this generation and they have to take their rightful places to make it become what they want it to become for the generations coming behind them,” King said.
Indeed, that was the impetus behind Hood’s invitation to King to address the students and guests at the South Miami-Dade school.
“The significance of having Martin Luther King III here is tremendous,” Hood said. “I think his message echoes what we’re trying to do here at Palmer Trinity and that is to educate the whole child.”
Ethan, 14, who spent three days polishing his speech for the event, said that King’s stories and memories helped bring Dr. King alive to his fellow classmates. “It helps us connect to Martin Luther King but also to connect to him as an individual because he was a great man and he inspires us.”
Ariel Edwards, 30, the senior site director for the Breakthrough program at Palmer Trinity, was similarly enthused as about 15 students, ages 9-12, from South Dade’s Leisure City, gathered to hear King inside Palmer’s gymnasium.
“Our hope was that we had the opportunity to be exposed to history and to get motivation and continue working hard,” Edwards said, adding that she hopes the Breakthrough students she mentors heard King’s message Wednesday and “understand their place in this generation and understand how they can do so much more if they believe in themselves and how their ability to do small things can create a huge effect. ... This was a great to have the collaboration between public and private schools.”
Palmer Trinity’s Spanish and filmmaking teacher Raul Gonzalez, who put together the event’s video montage, which featured images of Dr. King and his family, the iconic “I Have a Dream speech” delivered from the nation’s capital 50 years ago, and King’s funeral in 1968, found the morning presentation hopeful.
“Having the opportunity to have Martin Luther King III here, to bring his father’s legacy, and his own legacy, will stay with the kids and allow them to bring that to the world,” Gonzalez said. “It was a little seed that was planted today that I’m sure will go far.”
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