Students from the Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy board a train bound for Washington, DC
WASHINGTON -- The students from the Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy in Atlanta live in one of the geographical centers of the civil rights movement. The Rev. Bernice King, daughter of their school's namesake and Martin Luther King Jr., visits so regularly that the girls call her a big sister.
But even with that exposure, the nine middle- and high-school girls arriving in Washington on Friday morning on Amtrak could barely contain their giggles as they began what will be a historic weekend.
Bernice King and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., former Freedom Rider and one of King's disciples, met the girls on the platform at Union Station to help them start a trip that will include Sunday's dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The star-studded four-hour event will feature President Obama, Aretha Franklin and civil rights leaders.
King will escort the girls on a private visit to the $120 million memorial - the first major monument on the National Mall that honors a non-president and African American. And they will visit Lewis' Capitol Hill office, a space full of historic civil rights photos and memorabilia.
"This is an amazing opportunity," said Tamira Johnson, 14, as she raised her shoulders in excitement. "I want to take back to my peers that you may have trials and tribulations, but step up and be a leader."
Civil Rights Movement
Stories, videos, cold cases.Johnson, a ninth-grader, said Friday marked her second time meeting Lewis. "It was amazing to be in the presence of someone who walked with Dr. King."
The girls have been "over the moon" in anticipation of the trip, high school Principal Termerion McCrary said.
The girls, wearing their school's pink shirts and brown blazers, grinned and posed for photos and chatted with Lewis and King in a reception room Amtrak had reserved for them at Union Station. Amtrak funded the overnight trip for the girls, the middle- and high-school principals and a school administrator.
King advised the girls to appreciate their trip from Atlanta because when her father would travel to work in tobacco fields as a young man, railroad employees would draw a curtain on the train after crossing the Mason-Dixon Line to separate the whites from the blacks.
"We thank God for the work that my father and congressman Lewis and so many of them did to enable you all to take this trip without worrying about a curtain coming down on you, without you questioning the validity of who you are, because you are wonderful young ladies," King said.
Lewis said he hopes to help the girls understand that King left behind a slate of accomplishments, including "attending the public schools, going to Morehouse, going to seminary in Pennsylvania, then to Boston University."
"I think they will be inspired and say if Martin Luther King can do all of this, we can too," Lewis said. "I think they will be moved that this man was never elected to any public position, who spoke up and spoke out, who ushered in a non-violent revolution."
He added, "They will take back the experience of being here, where the (1963) March on Washington took place."
Lewis is the last surviving organizer of the march, where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Several of the girls said the trip is special because it will help them connect what they've discussed and read with real places and people.
Tenth-grader Alexis Booker said it was her first time meeting Lewis, although she has read about him a great deal. Lewis represents the district where the school is located.
"It was an honor. I kind of felt like it was a connection," said Booker, 16, who wants to be a pianist and singer. "He went through a lot of things that Dr. King went through, and his daughter is like an older, wise sister to us."
The school selected the girls on the trip based on essays and recommendations from teachers. Another group will fly to the dedication with the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, and still another group will take a bus to Washington, middle-school Principal Dione Simon said.
King advised the girls to share what they learn over the weekend with their peers back home.
In an interview, she said, "What I would hope they would walk away with is a determination and a commitment to give their life to service others. A lot of times people are concerned with the next generation being so self-focused and so concerned with material things only. ... I believe an encounter with the King memorial is going to make them more socially conscious."