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Children on Long Island learn about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, message

Educators at Centennial Avenue School in Roosevelt on Thursday talked about how they make ideas of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. relevant to the children of today. (Credit: Linda Rosier)

Singing out with full lung power, fourth-grader Dalton Nembhard recited an ode to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at his school in Roosevelt.

At the Uniondale Public Library, kids used crayons and purple construction paper to express their dreams for their community.

Over in Coram, Emi Mrose, 9, was among a few hundred parents and children who braved subfreezing temperatures to walk together in a unity march Saturday. She had a clear understanding of King's impact on her own life, saying that about half of her school friends are a different color than herself.

"If he wasn't here, a lot of the people I know at school, they wouldn't be here," she said.

In schools, libraries and community gatherings, Long Island children have been spending  the last few weeks learning the lessons and legacy of the iconic civil rights hero, from his unwavering belief in nonviolent protest to his humanistic message of equality and justice for all.

For years, the celebration of King's birthday on the third Monday of January has become an opportunity to pass down the legacy of a man who died nearly 52 years ago to a new generation. But these days that is no easy proposition, say educators. To a child, those black-and-white photos of black activists sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs may seem from a distant past, they say.

Moreover, parents and educators must push back against the pervasive presence of video games, music and movies that glorify violence, said David Hodge, operations coordinator for the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Alabama.

"Oftentimes, nonviolence is portrayed in the context that it is cowardly," said Hodge, whose center is part of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "We talk about the bravery and resilience it takes to stand up to people using nonviolence."

Living with people who are different

Classrooms at Centennial Avenue Elementary School in Roosevelt are bursting with the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. A big banner hangs over the school entranceway saying "Remembering the Dream." A record player nearby reverberates with King's mesmering voice, ringing out with his calls for freedom.

Dalton Nembhard, 9, is among the students learning the poem "I am a man: Ode to Martin Luther King Jr." He recites it as if channeling the man himself.

"I am a man. I am no better than my brother, but I am no less than any other."

He takes that message personally.

"He was the one who gave us equal rights," said Nembhard. "We didn't have equal rights back in the day."

In teaching children about King's legacy, it's vital to present him on terms they will understand, said Centennial principal Barbara Solomon. For younger children, the message of nonviolence translates into them resolving conflict without lashing out with violence, she said. 

Inclusiveness, Solomon added, means learning to live with people who are different.

"With all the violence in the world, kids need a process to work through that," Solomon said. "They need to learn this now. By the time they become adults it might be too late."

Upstairs in room 2008, Meg Knight's first-grade class is building sentences around King's maxims about courage, kindness and bravery. 

Knight keeps a "kindness jar" in the class, and each time a student does something kind for another, she places a cotton ball in the jar. When the jar is full, the class celebrates by playing with watercolors.

All around the building, children were drawing pictures of King, reading essays on his life and singing songs about making his dreams come true.

Paige Williams, 10, has been learning about King every year since she came to the school.

"He's a leader who changed the world," said the fifth grader. "I learned that we should never give up on what we think is correct, and that can change the world."

Talking about King's childhood

Downstairs at the Uniondale Public Library, children were going bananas learning about Martin Luther King Jr. on Friday.

Library worker James Grzybowski, 23, was making the discussion on King a manic bunch of fun. Walking in, each child was handed a little bag of Goldfish treats, which set the mood.

They talked about King being supersmart as a boy. He skipped two grades in school.

Tristan Smith, 10, was among those shooting up his hand to respond to questions.

"He helped blacks and whites live together," said Smith, sitting in the front row with a red sweatshirt.

They all talked about the story that King, as a boy, had a white friend whose parents didn't want the boy hanging around with Martin. The two had to go to different schools. The kids in the library didn't think that was funny.

Then Grzybowski broke out the crayons, and the kids colored and wrote down their dreams for themselves, their community and the world.

"To stop pollution," wrote Jasmine Orellana, 10, on what she wanted for the world.

For her Uniondale community, she said she wanted to make it a place where children live in peace.

As for herself, she said she wanted pizza.

Coming together in the cold

For people gathered in front of Coram Elementary School on Saturday morning, the third annual Unity Walk was very much about community — and all that comes with it.

Before taking off on their half-mile march, people did all they could to stay warm — sipping coffee, walking around, hugging their kids — as a group of youngsters sang, "This Little Light of Mine."

Desirae Palmer, 8, of Middle Island, was among those sweet voices. She said she was happy to participate in the MLK march.

"He helped white people know that black people are important, too, and not to throw them under the bus," she said.

To Jamal Walcott, assistant principal at Longwood High School in Middle Island, the walk represented this entire community.

"Look around, there's black, white, Hispanic, Middle Eastern," Walcott said. "Through the ups and downs, we come together."

The bone-numbing cold weather made the march "more special," said Dan Mrose, 44, a Longwood social studies teacher and the father of Emi. "People came out despite it."

A Coram fire truck led the group down Mount Sinai-Coram Road. From a speaker on the truck, King's voice wafted over the marchers. 

"I have a dream," King said, adding that one day, "little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

On this day, in this place, that dream was real.

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