Those who knew turbulent civil rights era say younger generation needs to know more about MLK

Ruth Ann Carr is all smiles as volunteers with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity worked on her new house Thursday. The group is honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day by working on Carr’s home today as well. Buy this photo

The singular political force of Martin Luther King Jr. is now history. Children today are born into a world where the civil rights era is considered the past.

Segregated water fountains are a foreign concept to young people who now see a black president on TV.

It is a testament to King’s success that the march on Selma and the Poor People’s Campaign seem so ancient in today’s world. This country was a different place 50 years ago, and King was pivotal to shaping its change during the civil rights movement.

Today, the people who saw their lives changed in that turbulent time or in its wake say it is their job to keep King’s legacy alive.

“The whole era has taken on less significance than it had,” said Bernard Powers, College of Charleston history professor. “Next month is Black History Month, and he’ll be talked about along with Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, almost as if they were contemporaries.”

Today, more than 30 volunteers from the community — black and white — will be helping Ruth Ann Carr of James Island build her home. It’s a service day for Sea Island Habitat for Humanity, honoring the iconic civil rights leader on the holiday dedicated to him.

When Carr was young during King’s time, the retired office manager never could have conceived of something like this happening. The idea of her home being selected to honor him brings her almost to tears.

“I don’t want to get emotional,” she says. “Certain words make me emotional. Words really can’t express it.”

But it’s something the community elder struggles to convey to her grandchildren and others.

“Younger people, they just have a different mind-set,” she said. “Not only Martin Luther King is being forgotten, it’s a forgotten era.”

Kimberly Farfone, the Sea Island Habitat board member who is about half Carr’s age, concedes it with reluctance. She grew up more attuned to King’s significance than most in her generation, she says.

“But people in general, I think, see that Lincoln Memorial (‘I have a dream’) speech in their minds; I don’t think they know anything else. They know this little clip of him like a media sound bite,” she said. “Maybe we haven’t done a good job of holding the whole story together.”

In that two-dimensional image of King, a lot more of him is lost than remembered, Powers suggests.

“One of the things that has happened, a lot of the radicalism of King’s message has been adulterated. People don’t remember how reviled he was in his day,” he said. “So often today, the representation of King is as a missionary. He made trouble. He didn’t calm the waters; he troubled the waters. We don’t get so much of the social radical.”

Told of Powers’ comments, Carr agreed. Appreciation of just how much King fought for has dimmed.

“This,” she said gesturing to her home under construction on a recent morning and the volunteers on break from the University of Wisconsin helping make it happen. “I never thought this would ever be possible. This is a blessing. I’ve worked 33 years for this. I just count it a privilege and a joy, especially because of what he stood for. That means a lot to me,” she said. “I think it’s still up to us, the older people, the seniors, to regenerate that any way we can.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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