What would King say to Federal Way students? | Guest column

The following speech by teacher Pam Ashe was delivered Jan. 14 during a Martin Luther King assembly at Federal Way High School:

I wondered how Dr. Martin Luther King would evaluate what we have done with the legacy entrusted to us to continue to defend human dignity and preserve the rights that the constitution of the United States guarantees every one of us.

He would stand here before this beautifully diverse student body and be proud and pleased that a great portion of his dream has been fulfilled. He would see that this is a place where none of us are judged by the color of our skin, but rather by the content of our character. He would see that blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, Jews, Gentiles, Protestants, Catholics, atheists, gay and straight students and staff are able to join hands as sisters and brothers doing amazing work together in our classrooms, accomplishing great feats together in the athletic arena and making a difference in our community. He would be grateful that his life had not been sacrificed in vain. I believe he would say, “Well done Federal Way High School.”

King would also remind us that there is still much work to be done, and that we must not feel complacent about the progress we have made since he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. We can’t allow apathy, laziness and hopelessness to set us back in our quest for excellence. You can’t be satisfied that the work done by past generations to secure your freedom will suffice for you or your children.

The danger is that instead of continuing to progress, you will be moved backward by your own unwillingness to take advantage of the opportunities given to you.

In his speech, King talks about it being time for America to cash the check that would “give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” That check has been cashed, thanks to his efforts, and the proceeds have been handed over to you, guaranteeing your right to an education in a college or university of your choice, a job in a career of your choice and a home in a neighborhood of your choice. It is up to you to invest it wisely, or you will squander your inheritance and have little to pass on to the next generation.

Even though most of you have learned something about the civil rights movement in your social studies classes, or from your parents and grandparents, you often imagine that these events occurred some time in the dark ages, before electricity or indoor plumbing. Many of you have a skewed sense of time for anything that hasn’t been featured on the Internet, posted on Facebook or Twitter, or gone viral on YouTube. It’s hard for you to relate to the past or to understand your responsibility and your role in the future. I actually had a student in my junior English class two years ago who seriously thought that Martin Luther King Jr. had been instrumental in freeing the slaves. But I was 14 years old when the march on Washington took place. That was 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. I watched King deliver his speech on live television.

Just a year before that, I graduated from eighth grade. My godmother took me on a road trip as a graduation present. It was the first time I had ever been out of California. Together with my younger brother and cousin, we traveled from L.A. all the way to the Gulf Coast, and part of that trip included an exciting visit to the Seattle World’s Fair. The majesty of Mt. Rainier and the wonder of the Space Needle when I saw them for the first time was overwhelming.

But there were unpleasant experiences as well, like the bright orange neon sign atop a flea bitten motel in Dallas, Texas, that to this day, burns vividly in my memory. It read, “Colored Welcome.” We had been turned away at five other nice motels before we finally were able to spend the night there in a filthy room with no air conditioning.

I can still taste the bitter sting of a hamburger that had been covered with a thick layer of salt by the cook at a Tastee Freeze drive-in restaurant in Tucson, Ariz. The french fries and shakes had been tainted with salt as well, but nobody noticed until my godmother had already turned back onto the interstate. I begged her to go back to the drive-in. I was infuriated by the deliberate meanness of it, and I wanted whoever was responsible to make it right. But she had been born in the South and, unlike me, had experienced what could happen if you made a fuss. We left the ruined food on the side of the road and continued, hungry, on our trip. The memory of the muddy pond in a park in Lafayette, La., still makes me angry, mostly because the black and brown children who splashed in it seemed happy to have a place to cool off in the blistering heat and humidity, mindless of how unfair it was that the white children, only a few yards away, were enjoying cool, clean water in a real, tile-lined swimming pool beneath a neatly lettered notice that glared, “Whites Only.”

I only share these personal experiences to emphasize the fact that not long ago, most of you would have been denied the rights and privileges that you take for granted today.

These things happened in my lifetime. Don’t let them be repeated in yours or anyone else’s. I cried as I sat on my living room floor watching King’s speech. I knew I had to do my part so that the courage of those 300,000 people who marched there that day from all over the country and the world would not be in vain. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated. I was a freshman in college. I cried again as I watched his funeral attended by presidents and foreign heads of state. I promised that I would work to be the best person I could be, so that his sacrifice would not be in vain. I decided to become a teacher.

If King were standing here today, he would ask the same thing of you, that you work to the best of your ability to become successful young women and men, at whatever you do. That is the way to honor his memory and to continue the work that was interrupted by a fatal gunshot. That is the best way to spend the check he cashed for us all.

Pam Ashe, who teaches English at Federal Way High School, delivered this speech Jan. 14 during an MLK assembly for students.

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