King nephew urges pupils at Woodlawn school `to be the best'

February 26, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Derek Barber King Sr., nephew of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., celebrated Black History Month at Woodlawn Middle School yesterday by urging pupils to believe in themselves and strive to be the best they can be.

"Don't let anybody destroy who you are," King told pupils packing the school gymnasium. "Don't let anybody hate you more than you love yourself."

Beguiling the crowd with a mixture of street slang and a preacher's oratorical flourishes, King said he hoped to see the pupils become doctors, lawyers, scientists, astronauts and entrepreneurs.

"You can't make a whole lot of money on a street corner" over the long term, he said. "You have to be the best. You have to be the best you're going to be."

While the half-hour speech was predominantly inspirational, it did become personal at one point. Half the pupils raised their hands when King asked whether they had attended a funeral of a friend or loved one.

"I've been there," King said, noting the deaths of his uncle and other relatives. "That hurt. But look at me now. I did not let the hurt stop me."

His visit took place at a school that has faced discipline problems and the threat of a state takeover. This year, however, Woodlawn Middle has received praise around Baltimore County for a promising turnaround.

Staff members said that the school might not have been able to hold assemblies like yesterday's in previous years.

King, a professor of religious studies at Martin University in Indianapolis, visited Woodlawn Middle while finishing a speaking tour in the Baltimore area.

As his uncle once did, King emphasized inclusion and tolerance, calling up a diverse group of pupils and then declaring, "Black History Month is not separate from America -- it's a part of America."

After King finished, Principal Jerilyn C. Roberts urged the pupils to remember his message that it's what's inside that counts.

"The strength of our character will be what we are judged by, not where we live, not how much money your parents have, not the kind of car they drive," she said. "In life, it's going to be the strength of your character that's going to lead you where you want to go."

Later, members of the school choir sang "We Shall Overcome" as pupils clapped and teachers swayed.

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