One Teen's Thoughts on Martin Luther King Jr.

I've passed the image hanging in the hallway countless times. A tired nun sits on a patch of grass bordering the road, an American flag in her hand; behind her stands an unsmiling soldier. The two individuals are pictured in the streets of Montgomery, unkowingly imprinted in a black and white photo of history. The small, scrawled signature in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo reads Spider Martin, my uncle, the photographer.

My father emphasized to me the unique connection to the Civil Rights Movement my family has because of Spider's photos. The march, of course, led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Selma becoming, in the words of Marin Luther King, a ''shining moment in the conscience of man'' that ''would turn the whole nation to a new course.’’ In many respects, my uncle embodies part of the past for me; not only as part of my childhood, but his role in the Civil Rights Movement has a feel of antiquity.

His Birmingham and my Birmingham are clearly two entirely different places.

He walked down streets, photographing a peaceful people who had been told to “wait” too many times. Their road was blocked by police and solid waves of hatred and prejudice. My streets show no such conflict, but the tension has not departed. It is present in my lunch room where students automatically segregate to their respective tables; it is present when individuals feel uncomfortable in the presence of a group with a different ethnic background; it is present when comments like “It’s America, speak English” are voiced; it is present every time someone uses the term “Oreo” or plays up a racial stereotype that is “negated” by tacking on an “I’m just joking.”

Not all actions are taken with ill intent, and indeed it would be ridiculous to pretend there are no differences among us. But many of us have become as complacent in our status quo today as we were 60 years ago, as the “white moderate” contingent was when it failed to “understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race,” as Dr. King said. Birmingham’s past is shady, dark; the opposition to equality was formidable, tangible, and clearly visible. Now similar sentiments are hidden beneath a layer of cordiality. The quiet bonds of prejudice that persist are not openly hostile so much as a quiet acceptance of how things are. Dr. King advocated extremism for “the extension of justice” and “love, truth and goodness.” Still, many persist doggedly in maintaining stereotypes that in reality are as real as mirages in the desert.

Birmingham’s past has been a chain of social oppression and bloody occurrences meant to constrict the city in what Dr. King termed as a “monologue rather than dialogue” that promoted a “bondage of myths and half-truths” upon blacks. It was a city where there was a “whole community of Negroes facing terror and brutality.” The evidence is in the freedom rides, sit-ins, Jim Crow’s oppressive presence, tear gas, bus rides, hoses, dogs…

Yet, there’s so much promise and progress in Birmingham. A few years ago I walked down the bridge on the Selma March anniversary with fellow Birmingham citizens of all backgrounds. Dr. King dreamed of “when all men will recognize the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” I felt that moment was profound and convinced me of the legacy of Dr. King’s work we are bound to uphold. Indeed, Birmingham has made strides.

I’m grateful to know students who share a similar interest in promoting tolerance. The resolve and strong sense of right and wrong visible in my peers is heartening. These students, friends, sons and daughters realize “the urgency of the moment” and “the need for powerful ‘action’.” They possess the foresight to “always march ahead.” Surely the future of Birmingham can only be bright in the hands of such a generation? Although we are still much too aware of race, I feel that each generation is less prone to discriminate based on that awareness.

In many ways, I feel I can be a continuation of what the Civil Rights movement labored to achieve—that I can help ensure the photos of Birmingham’s monstrous past are not the images of our future. Birmingham, once described by Dr. King as in a region with “vicious racists”, now stands as a symbol of the Civil Rights movement. I believe the bells of freedom ring for us today and grow clearer with each passing year.

  Prize winning essay

  by Brodie Martin, age 16, 11th grade.

  Brodie will be recognized for her essay on Monday

  at the MLK Unity Breakfast in Birmingham.