During Martin Luther King Jr.’s march against his government’s institutionalized racism, the uniformed police officers who were photographed hosing down, arresting and beating King’s followers became the emblems of the oppressive laws they upheld. Forty years later, the police in Mount Vernon are appealing for the community’s help in saving some troubled communities from themselves.
On Monday, in a warm, windowless room in the Sacramento Community Center, Captain Mike Kline, in his navy blue police uniform, sat in a crowd of about 50 people, mainly teenagers. When invited to speak, the commander of the Mount Vernon Station said police patrols are not solving the issues that lead to youth crimes.
“There’s a whole lot of mentoring that needs to be done in this area,” Kline said. “The cycle needs to be broken.”
The Sacramento Center exists to break that cycle. With only its essential operating costs funded by the county the center, in a storefront of a shopping plaza, is an experiment in what a community is capable of when it marshals its own resources. The center is home to an after-school program for children and teens, a computer lab and classes on areas as diverse as Tai Kwon Do and effective parenting. The center hosts block parties and a police neighborhood patrol unit, whose officers try to build relationships with members of a community that many agree is fractured by poverty, crime and a fundamental lack of cooperation between neighbors.
Patrol Officer Ernie Jones said poor parenting is the community’s biggest problem. Growing up in a rough Maryland neighborhood, he said, “I could have found trouble real easy. But I had good parents that raised me right.”
VOLUNTEERS HONORED MARTIN LUTHER KING by cleaning up the center’s teen room, in an effort to lay the foundation for a vibrant teen program that will pull in youths who would otherwise be roaming the neighborhood, and by taking it to the streets, handing out business cards for the center and asking people to sign a petition condemning the violence that has been most recently epitomized by December’s racially motivated assaults against Hispanic people. Police have fingered a 12-year-old boy as the ringleader of the attacks that led to the arrest of seven youths between 12 and 15. Although they occurred in Hybla Valley, up the road from Sacramento, the people gathered at the community center said the assaults are symptoms of the same disease that exists in their neighborhood.
S.K. Welch, the director of Fairfax County Teen Services, an invited speaker, praised the teenagers, many from Lee High School, who chose to forego a day in front of the X-Box and spend their holiday celebrating the life of King, “it shows a lot about your character.” Following Kline, he told them they could influence their friends’ behavior more than any adults. “You all have the most influence on your peers.”
Near the end of the program, Yolanda Ellison, a youth minister at First A.M.E. Church in Alexandria, raised her hand in the audience and asked to speak. “Martin Luther King was a great man and he did what he did because he had a community behind him,” she said, then asked her peers to take a stand on their life’s priorities. “Choose if you just want to do you, or if you want to be about the community.”
AFTER THE PROGRAM ENDED, Sally Waller, the center’s director, said that honoring King’s struggle for equal rights today means confronting the youth violence that is a symptom of, among other things, poor parenting. She acknowledge that many parents are working two jobs and cannot always be there to supervise the children that Waller sees drifting past the center, often during school hours, each day. “I just wish there was a way we could come together as a community and figure out what we could do to make it easier,” she said.
Sacramento already offers parenting classes, and it will soon have a “teen space” that is completely staffed and managed by teenage volunteers. As part of the King celebrations, teen volunteers handed out Sacramento business cards to 67 neighbors in 45 minutes. “We’re just going to keep trying,” Waller said.
Xavier McEthan, a Sacramento volunteer who is trying to build up his “Boys 2 Men” mentoring group, helped the youth hand out the cards. “Our struggle now is kind of fading away from [King’s] dream as far as unity in the black neighborhood. Instead of blacks coming together it’s like we’re coming apart.”
Evelyn Martin, another volunteer, said she told her grandson about the opportunities King had won for black people. “Martin Luther King made a way for us to stand on our two feet to do what we can do.”
McEthan and Martin said King’s message transcends the uplifting of a single race. “I’m just glad there were all colors in his march,” Martin said. “He made it possible for everybody.”
“We just want it to happen everywhere. That’s kind of impossible. But if you want to make it possible, it could happen. It could.”
DURING THE CEREMONY, a group of teens presented the Sacramento youths’ “remix” of King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” which read in part, “I have a great dream that one day in the suburbs of Alexandria, Va., along the great corridor of Richmond Highway, in a community we all know and love called Sacramento, that everyone, no matter what age, color or clique, will be able to come together and get along… We have a war going on today right in the heart of Sacramento!”
Later, the group sang the Civil Rights Anthem “Lift Every Voice.” Waller was introduced as the soloist, but she was a reluctant star.
“Everybody stand up,” she said. “We’re going to do this together. I’m not doing this alone.”