New York City – The news that Martin Luther King Jr had been murdered on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee hit 17-year-old Freeman Hrabowski like a death in the family.
In 1968, Hrabowski was a math-obsessed undergraduate at Hampton University, in the midst of pledging King’s Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
His fellow students were devastated, especially those, like him, with roots in the Deep South.
“The other kids were sad, but they were trying to understand why we felt almost like this guy was a part of our family,” Hrabowski told Al Jazeera. “It was as gut-wrenching as an experience could be for some of us. The ineluctable question became: is there any more hope?”
Hrabowski knew King better than most.
As a 12-year-old boy, he marched in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade to protest his city’s rigid racial segregation, the hand-me-down textbooks, the endless reminders, big and small, that the all-white authorities who ruled the city did not accord him full humanity.
|Children participating in a Civil Rights protests wait for a police van to take them to jail in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1963 [Bettman/Getty Images]|
He remembers King speaking at his family’s church – Hrabowski in the back, eating M&Ms and working on math homework – and telling the congregation that, if the children marched for equal rights, the country could not turn away.
The anniversary of King’s death, 50 years ago on Wednesday, comes as a new generation of young activists tests itself against the entrenched and powerful.
The young black leaders of today
Several prominent leaders of the movement for gun control lent new strength in the aftermath of February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, are not yet old enough to vote.
Black Lives Matter chapters draw much of their membership from activists in their teens and twenties.
Among them is 25-year-old Tifanny Burks who is an organiser with Black Lives Matter in Broward County, Florida. Burks said that she sees her work as continuing a tradition set by King and other civil rights leaders.
“The type of organiser I am relies on shared wisdom from people who have done this work in the past,” Burks said. “I take a lot of inspiration from Martin Luther King, but also from fre