King's Dream Lives With Children : Youngsters Comment About Civil Rights Leader

Times Staff Writer

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. --Martin Luther King Jr.

Most of them had never heard of Jimmy Carter. A few thought Richard Nixon was a football star.

But because schools will be closed today on the first official federal holiday in his honor, school children have at least some inkling of Martin Luther King Jr., according to a sampling of Los Angeles students. The students are familiar with the civil rights struggle and many of them eagerly discuss the state of race relations in their neighborhoods.

Of Buses and Boycotts

These impressions were drawn from recent visits to eight classrooms of fourth- through sixth-grade students at five of the 618 public schools in Los Angeles. (The L.A. schools are about 54% Latino, 19% black, 19% white and 8% Asian.) The children were asked about what they knew of Carter and Nixon, about King and Rosa Parks, about sitting on the back of the bus and boycotts. For every one who knew Nixon was once President, at least 10 knew that a tired Rosa Parks got arrested because she wouldn't yield her seat on a bus, prompting a boycott.

While a few of the more than 200 children interviewed told of parents sitting them down to talk about civil rights, the vast majority of whites, Asians and Latinos--and a substantial minority of blacks--said they knew of King only from their surrogate parents: school teachers and television.

"I know about him because I was watching TV a year ago, watching a funny program, and my father said, 'You shouldn't be watching that but the movie (on another channel) about Martin Luther King because he was a great man and you should learn about him,' "said Carolina Barrientos, 10. She's a fifth-grader at overcrowded 10th Street Elementary School just west of downtown, where shouted Spanish fills the playground at recess and most of the families are so poor that the children get government-paid lunches.

"My first-grade teacher told me about Martin Luther King," said Carolina's classmate, Betty Watkins, 10, who is Anglo. "Our class had a birthday party for him."

Less typical was the experience of Adam Olsen, 11, a sixth-grader at Topanga Elementary School, which is 91% white and has only one black student. "When I was 8, Mom and Dad sat me down and told me he (King) wanted to make black Americans free and had me watch a TV film about him," Adam said.

Lupe Abitia, 10, one of Ruby Liddell's students at 10th Street Elementary, said: "He was good to people and he told white people to get together with black people."

"He got arrested because he tried to change the world and they (whites) didn't want him to," said David Gekchyan, 10, a fifth-grader on the student council at Van Ness Avenue Elementary School, in a working-class neighborhood south of Hollywood and north of Hancock Park that is becoming increasingly Latino.

"He told the whole world to have freedom because they don't get along," said Wendy Hernandez, another Van Ness School student council member.

" Sometimes black and white people don't get along," added another student council member, Cesar Tellez, 12.

In each of the eight classes visited, at least some children thought that King, who was assassinated in 1968, lived at least 100 years ago and some thought slavery continued until as recently as two decades ago. A few children thought King led violent combat for racial equality, but most seemed aware of nonviolence and a sizable minority indicated a knowledge of how boycotts can organize economic power to force social change.

Flavio Valadez, 11, in Wally Aker's sixth-grade class at Allesandro Elementary School, said King "tried to help black people and once they (whites) threw a bomb into his house." Flavio's school, situated near Dodger Stadium and the Golden State Freeway, is 80% Latino. Three of four children there qualify for government-paid lunches.

The classroom conversations about King frequently led to discussions of race relations in general.

Flavio's classmates, Danny Ceniceros, 12, and Patty Alvarez, 11, both said they personally had observed, and been troubled by, racial conflict.

Danny told of a motel owner who mistakenly thought his father, a football photographer, was black and wouldn't rent a room to him. Patty recalled the gang of white youths in her old East Los Angeles neighborhood who harassed a black family, breaking a house window and shouting racist epithets.

Danny said he also learned, from movies and old TV news footage, how "the policemen, during the riots (following King's assassination) beat on black people like they weren't human and it didn't matter. It made my insides go weird because I didn't ever see anything like that."

At Windsor Hills Elementary School on a hilltop northeast of Los Angeles International Airport where 95% of the students are black and just 24% qualify for free lunches, the children had, among those interviewed citywide, the most sophisticated understanding of King, nonviolence and civil rights.

Some of the Windsor Hills youngsters in Peggy Woodard's sixth-grade class knew about restrictive racial covenants in housing deeds (which are no longer legal), though about half indicated surprise when Principal Jack Silas said such deeds had once been in effect in the surrounding neighborhood, an area of spacious and well-kept homes now owned by middle- and upper-middle-class black families.

'Lot of Black Racism'

Gregory Chang, 11, who is black and Chinese, said he believes that today "it's only in a few areas that they (whites) don't want blacks." But Gregory added that many black people are concentrated in poor neighborhoods and "there's a lot of black racism to whites in Watts."

Gregory's classmate, Carl Guillemet, 11, who is black, said he agreed but added, "I think black people try to be more friendly than white people."

Karen Hunt, 10, a fifth-grader in Sue Tuckman's class at Windsor Hills Elementary, is from a family dedicated to racial friendliness. "My mom sent me to this school," said Karen, who is one of about a dozen white children whose parents bus them into the school. She said her mother has talked with her extensively about civil rights, racism and how all people are alike.

And being part of a white minority has also meant Karen has felt the sting of racist remarks. "Sometimes kids make fun of me because my hair is red," she said.

Her classmate, Roger James, 10, who is black, recalled when he attended a predominantly white school in the San Fernando Valley, "I wanted to play basketball and this white boy said, 'You can't play because you're black.' So I left and played with some other boys who were white."

On another day, Roger said, he again tried to join a basketball game of white boys, including the one who had sent him away.

"He told me again I couldn't play, but another white boy said OK. Then the white boy who didn't want me to play went to the teacher and said I shouldn't be allowed to play and the teacher said, 'So what?' "

Still later, Roger said, a group of black boys were playing basketball when who should happen by but the same white boy. "He asked to play and he did and now we're friends. I even have his telephone number," Roger said.

'Some Whites Won't Sell'

At predominantly white Topanga Elementary School, Tara Mulski, 10, said she was fascinated by an intense conversation her father had with a friend on Thanksgiving Day about fair housing. "Blacks needs to have a place to live and they should live in areas they want and can afford," she said, adding "some neighborhoods are full of whites, like Topanga, and when blacks come in to buy, some whites won't sell to them."

"Just because they're black they shouldn't be treated different," said her classmate, Jarred Shiffman, 10.

Mathew Humphries, 11, a black sixth-grader at Van Ness Avenue School, told how his mother telephoned in response to an apartment for rent ad in the newspaper and was told no one had applied. "They said to come right over," Mathew recalled, "and my mom did, but as soon as they saw her they said the apartment was already taken."

"I feel awful," said classmate Wendy Hernandez, 11.

"That's unfair," added Cesar Tellez, another classmate.

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