Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could connect with any audience, including teenagers.
So said the panelists of the “26th Annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service with Global Citizen360: A Dialogue,” a Jan. 18 webinar about how King’s words could offer guidance in an age of unprecedented challenges.
Members of the communities of Jewish Community Relations Council of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and PRO-ACT, Philadelphia Recovery Community Center watched a video of King’s 1967 speech “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” which he delivered at Barratt Junior High School (now Barratt Middle School) in South Philadelphia, and shared their thoughts on the enduring relevance of King’s legacy to young people.
In his speech, which he gave six months before he was assassinated, King told students how to embrace the values that would create a moral blueprint for the rest of their lives. Among these values were self-respect, determination and love.
“I think about these things often, specifically as it relates to being a mother and raising three young boys,” said panelist Shelby Zitelman, co-founder of Soom Foods. She added that these values were foundational in raising her children to be mensches who care about themselves and the people around them.
King also stressed the importance of education as the gateway to economic opportunity, despite the overwhelming racism and poverty facing his young audience. Panelist George Mosee, executive director of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, said he was a student at Shaw Junior High School, now Hardy Williams Academy, just a few miles from Barratt, when King gave his speech.
“The six, seventh and eighth grades are critical grades, and not just in terms of academic growth and development, but preparing one for success in life. And so it was just wonderful that Dr. King took the time to visit a junior high school,” he said.
He added that King’s ideas could be applied not just to young people building their lives but to older adults impacted by substance abuse and violence.
“It seems to me that Dr. King gave us a blueprint, and not just for building a resilient successful life, but he also gave us a blueprint for repairing broken lives,” he said.
Panelist Joshua Runyan, an attorney and former editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent, added that King’s message of instilling self-worth was key to repairing the world’s injustices.
“Dr. King’s message is that a person must determine their own internal truth and realize who they are individually. You can’t ultimately contribute to a collective goal, as in societal progress, without first realizing who you are as an individual,” he said.
Panelist Brother Robb Carter, co-director of the Men’s Center for Growth and Change, reflected on how his own attitudes about King have changed throughout his life. As a teenager watching civil rights activists get brutalized by police and white mobs on television, he was horrified that King would advocate for protesters to refrain from physically defending themselves.
As an adult researching his legacy, however, he was inspired by King’s need to balance calls for personal responsibility with advocating for societal change.
“I’ve come to appreciate that he’s one of the most gangster warriors there is,” he said.
He listened to “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” several times in the days leading up to the event.
“Today, hearing it just now, I was able to just look at his face and appreciate him as an artist, as a preacher and as a storyteller,” he said.
The panel was moderated by JCRC Director Laura Frank and Marie Widmeier, coordinator of the Philadelphia office of PRO-ACT.
Widmeier asked the panelists if Philadelphia’s youth could still apply King’s ideas to solving problems in their own lives and communities. Mosee said yes, and that young people needed to be encouraged to think about their moral strength as well as their academic and financial success, which are often too heavily emphasized in schools and juvenile justice systems at the expense of moral education.
Runyan thought so, and shuddered to think of the alternative.
“Because I believe in a benevolent God, I can’t imagine the Almighty would create a world that does not have the power to redeem itself,” he said.