WASHINGTON, D.C. — Standing below “The Stone of Hope,” high school students and residents from Southwest Florida were humbled and awed as they joined thousands Sunday for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The students on the 1,025-mile bus trip felt disconnected from the movement. The adults had fought for it.
But with joint efforts from both sides, they left the nation’s capital as a group inspired to “Keep the Dream Alive.”
“It is my hope that we will enhance the young people to pick up where I leave off at,” said Willie Green Sr., director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Fort Myers and organizer of the trip. “We hope they become more knowledgeable of the struggle as it continues, and where we were, and where we hope to be one day.”
Lounedine Louis, a Riverdale High School student, left Florida for the first time on this trip.
“Growing up in Fort Myers, I lived right by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard,” Louis said. “Now I get to be where he grew up. It’s a feeling of awe, yet also fulfillment.”
The 17-year-old now has an experience she can’t wait to tell her friends back home. Riverdale’s principal specifically picked Lounedine to travel to the dedication.
“How many people from Fort Myers or Lehigh Acres, these small cities, would actually be able to come here and witness this first hand?” Lounedine said. “I feel utterly honored.”
Lounedine, along with 45 others, took part in an educational, 17-hour bus trip to the MLK Monument Dedication organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It’s an organization that was created by Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Green runs the local Fort Myers chapter.
The group left Fort Myers on Friday night, made a stop at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Justice in Atlanta on Saturday, spent the night in Benson, N.C., and finally made their way to the monument dedication Sunday morning.
Tina Harris, a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said she would drive any distance to take this part of history home with her. Digital camera in hand, she snapped photos of the statue that has come to resemble a historical day for her.
What I love so much about this symbolism is that he said, ‘I have been to the mountain top.’ Now, he is carved into a mountain
“What I love so much about this symbolism is that he said, ‘I have been to the mountaintop.’ Now, he is carved into a mountain,” said Harris. “That is such a powerful experience to see that, and I’m just so grateful to be here.”
The statue stands 30 feet tall, with King’s quotes inscribed throughout the memorial. The dedication featured remarks from President Barack Obama and a concert by Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.
The students were excited to see the speeches, but the bus ran late. The tardiness didn’t dampen their spirits.
“I’m just glad to be taking part in this,” said Stephen Hill. “I’m here so I’m just going to enjoy the best of it.”
Stephen’s Lehigh Senior High principal also selected him to participate in the trip. The 18-year-old is one of the students Green and his organization was trying to reach.
“A lot of people my age have gotten away from the civil rights movement,” Stephen said. “It’s time that we remember where we came from.”
For Green’s son, who also traveled with the group, the trip not only helped him remember where he came from, but his own struggles of growing up in the ’60s to get here.
“(Today’s students) didn’t experience having all sorts of beer, urine and rocks thrown on you. Getting chased home,” said Willie Green Jr., 55. “It wasn’t easy.
“I missed the last trip (to D.C.), and I’m glad I’m on this one,” he added, “to say thanks for what he did for me.”
The fusion of new inspiration and senior members’ past experiences resonated with the students as they embraced the new memorial, now permanently carved into our nation’s history.
Glory Bridges, 44, shared her past experiences with some of the group members during a food stop on the ride up.
“You know what my birth certificate said?” questioned Bridges. “Negro. It didn’t say Black, but girl — negro.”
“We went from negro, to colored, to African-Americans,” said Green. “We’re on our way.”
The shared experiences on the bus paved the way for the students to fully understand the magnitude of witnessing King — full size, in stone, now on the National Mall.
“This statue represents for not only black people, but for people all over the world in general,” said Gary Peacock, 24, a student at Edison State College in Fort Myers. “The statue is very powerful. He was a great man who deserves something like this.”
As members of the group venture back to Southwest Florida on an overnight bus ride, they bring home lasting memories and a new confidence.
“MLK is a true testament that when your belief is strong, and your belief is just, anything is possible,” said Mario Michaud, 24, a nursing student at Edison State College. “I’m very excited about this monument. I feel like I too can accomplish anything.”