Two Decades Later, Heirs to a Dream

updated 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Twenty years have passed since the eloquent, conscience-searing voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was stilled by a sniper's bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Now a new generation of American blacks, who know Dr. King only as a historical figure, stands at the threshold of adulthood. They are the first generation to come of age in the world that King and the civil rights movement helped to create. It is they who will reap the benefits of his victories and they who must deal with the injustices that remain. Perhaps no individuals are more aware of this than black Americans born on the very day of King's assassination. Wondering how King's dream was faring, and how it is seen in the eyes of those who have inherited its promise, PEOPLE asked several of these young men and women, whose lives were beginning as King's was ending, how they regard their lives and his.

Gene Robbins keeps a small portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. on the wall of his room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Whenever my birthday comes around, it's like his birthday too," says Robbins, who was born in New York City on the day King died and has a deep reverence for the man's bravery and moral intensity. "I sometimes wonder whether I would have had the courage to march with him," says Robbins. He pauses to think, then concludes, "Yes, I would do it."

Certainly, Robbins, a second-year scholarship student in electrical engineering, has shown his mettle in other ways, sidestepping the many pitfalls of poverty in South Jamaica, Queens, to enroll at one of the nation's most prestigious schools. King's dream never made much of a dent in his neighborhood, Robbins says. "Most of the people I knew from junior high are either dead or in jail. And most of the girls have babies now. There's a lot of drugs. Education is not important there, money is."

Since it wasn't cool to be college-bound at August Martin High School, Robbins learned to keep quiet about his love of reading and his curiosity about how things work. "Nobody knew I was smart until they announced I was valedictorian," says Robbins, who adds that his mother, a homemaker, and his father, who works for a cleaning company, are "real proud."

Ironically, Robbins got his first real taste of racism when he went away to college. "It's subtle," he says. "It doesn't come right out. You're studying late at night in the library, and the staff asks you for your ID—to see if you belong there. There are," he adds, "places in Boston I can't go to." Robbins also fears that his future career could be limited by considerations of race. "I'll get as far as someone wants me to get," he says. "They'll promote me, but I'll never be company president." He thinks about someday starting his own business. "But it won't be just black," Robbins says. "It will be based on quality."

Tovonya Austin has an 18-month-old baby and another on the way but no immediate plans to marry the children's father, Lonnie Allen, a TV repairman. Instead, she shares a cramped flat in Chicago's racially mixed Humboldt Park with her mother and three teenage siblings. After graduating from high school, Austin worked one summer as a hospital clerk under a city-sponsored program. Now she's on welfare, but when her children are older, she says, "I'm open to any type of job. I'd like to get some training. Yeah, I want to do something with kids—I love children, I've a lot of patience with them—and maybe something clerical."

Every year about this time, Austin is reminded of the heritage that fate handed down to her. "They have those specials on TV about Martin Luther King Jr., and when they show his tombstone, I see my birthday and year up there," she says, adding shyly, "It makes me feel special." She realizes that prospects for a young black woman on Chicago's West Side are not yet what Dr. King had in mind, but she has no doubt that the man made a difference. "Yes, yes, most definitely he did," she says. "His winning the Nobel Peace Prize made me feel I don't have to ask if I can get on a bus. I'm gonna get on anyway."

What impresses her most about the old film footage, she says, are Dr. King's eyes. "They're glowing, like he had seen what was happening before it happened, and he was not afraid," she says. "He knew that he'd be taking a chance of getting killed, but he wanted to prove something to us before he left."

Greta Lockhart has heard the story of her birth many times: When her mother, Tommie, went into labor in a St. Louis hospital, Martin LutherKing Jr. was alive; recovering from the delivery, she found out he was dead. Greta has learned a lot about King over the years. "He's my idol," she says matter-of-factly. "There are still a lot of problems. Racial equality hasn't been reached. But the dream lives on and it has got to be kept alive."

From the age of 12, Greta grew up in Jackson, Miss., and admits that racial prejudice has played a part in shaping her outlook. "Discrimination can make you hostile if you let it put bitterness in you," she says, "or it could make you a better person if you handle it right. You need to make sure you don't inhibit yourself." Greta doesn't. A sophomore with a 3.53 grade average—out of a possible 4—at Xavier University in New Orleans, she expects to earn a Ph.D. in pharmacy and then work in industry or research. "My mother always used to say, 'My baby's going to be so special,' " says Greta, reflecting on her historic birthday. "You can look for me to win the Nobel prize in science."

Lamond Keith Walker, known to friends as "Kenny," will become a free man this Easter Sunday, just one day before his 20th birthday. For almost two years, Walker has been confined at the minimum security Oak Glen Youth Conservation Camp in California's San Bernardino mountains, where he has completed his high school credits and learned to fight forest fires—accomplishments of which he is proud. "I'm not a bad person," Walker says, "but my life took a bad turn, and now I'm turning it around again."

The youngest of six children, Kenny used to be "all-star everything," he says, at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. Then he started selling drugs. In 1983 he was arrested for selling marijuana, the next year he was picked up twice for peddling cocaine and PCP, and in September 1985 he was incarcerated for dealing cocaine. It was at Oak Glen that Kenny finally had time for reflection and remorse. "It's hard to describe how I feel when I think that people were robbing and stealing just to get what I was selling," he says. "I feel very bad."

He began to remember the things his parents, both former teachers, had told him about the man who died the day Kenny was born. "King told us we can achieve anything we want," he says. "We do have opportunities if we're ambitious about positive things."

Walker has a job as a truck driver waiting for him when he gets out, and he plans to enroll in junior college as soon as he is released. Down the road, he hopes to go to UCLA to study accounting. "It's not whites who are holding us down anymore," Kenny says. "It's us. King made it noticeable that our time has come to lead a better life."

Pvt. Travis Taylor, away from home for the first time, is homesick, scared and lonesome—in about that order, he says. But had he stayed in Alton, III, he admits he'd still be struggling to make ends meet as a janitor. At least in the Army, training at Fort Lee, Va., to maintain helicopters, Taylor can work toward a dream: After his service hitch, he hopes to get to college with his Gl benefits. His mother and father, a housewife and a psychiatric aide, told him about King and about the progress of blacks in their lifetime, and he can sense it in the Army as well. "I just wish Dr. King were alive to see it," he says.

Cathy Henson discovered in sixth grade, when she was asked to give a speech after graduating first in her class at Houston's Fairchild Elementary, that she loved public speaking. She likes to think that her birthday link to Martin Luther King Jr. has something to do with this oratorical gift. "I've seen every speech he ever made," says Cathy, a business major at the University of Houston. The seventh of nine children and the first in her family to go to college, Cathy knows that she has had wider opportunities than her mother and her father, a retired steelworker. "But blacks are still not treated exactly like whites," she says. "I'd say the battle for equality is about three-quarters won." Then she adds, "There is a crack in the door now for blacks, and I'm heading for it."

Pamela Martin was just 12 hours old when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in her home city of Memphis. Each year, on her birthday, Pamela joins other local residents on a march through downtown that ends at the now defunct Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader was shot. A sophomore at Shelby State Community College who supplements her partial scholarship by working at McDonald's, Pamela is majoring in business administration and hopes to become a certified public accountant for a large corporation. She doubts that many young black women could have aspired to such a career prior to King's civil rights efforts. "Because of him, we have a better life," says Martin, the eighth of 10 children of Prentiss Martin, a construction foreman, and his wife, Vivian. As evidence, Pamela cites the progress of her own family, which broke the color line in its middle-income East Memphis neighborhood just two years after King was assassinated. Tensions ran high at first, but over the years the Martins—a close-knit and deeply religious family that reads the Bible together after dinner—found acceptance in their newly integrated community. Pamela's best friend in high school was white. King's legacy is a palpable presence among both blacks and whites in Memphis, Pamela says, and because of it, she adds, "I've got so much more going for me today than my parents had."

Kimberly Wells and Tamica Jones were assigned to adjacent dorm rooms as incoming freshmen last year at Bradley University in Peoria, III. They quickly discovered some striking similarities in their backgrounds. Each is an only child, the first of her family to go to college. Each was born on the day of King's death and was reminded of it often growing up. Jones, who was born in New Jersey and then moved to Chicago with her mother, an executive secretary, says that her grandmother would play King's "Dream" speech every Saturday morning and preach along with the record. Wells says her mother, a production worker at Litton Industries, always kept in her sewing box the well-thumbed issue of Jef magazine that paid tribute to King just after his death.

On a campus with fewer than 300 blacks in a student body of more than 5,000, Jones and Wells feel very much in the minority. While neither has experienced overt discrimination, they agree that the gulf between the races is still wide, though they see signs of hope. "We had a classmate across the hall who was from a Chicago suburb and didn't know much about black people," Tamica says. "She'd ask questions like, 'How'd you get hair like that?' and we'd love her for it because she was trying to learn about us."

Both Wells, a journalism student, and Jones, who is studying special education, are active in Bradley's Black Student Alliance, but they worry that too many of their contemporaries are less involved. "I think a lot of people our age have the feeling that, oh well, we're not slaves anymore so everything's fine," Tamica says. "But everything isn't fine, and if we stop pushing, it's going to regress." Says Kimberly: "There will always be things that just should not be, whether in the black community or society in general." To which Tamica adds, "And there's always going to be somebody out there trying to stop you."

Tamica thinks being born on King's birthday has given her a special sensitivity on racial issues, and she tries to follow his example while still heeding her mother's advice to press for change "not at a slow pace but in a low tone." Are King's dreams still alive? "Oh, yes!" says Tamica. "Looking back at how he struggled—he had a lot of people doubting him, but he kept going. Makes me say, 'Tamica, you can do what you want to do too.' "

—By Dan Chu, with bureau reports

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