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Think of four little boys

Of all the words said in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. over the past weekend, some of the most moving may have been these: “Four little girls.”

Dancers at the King Day breakfast Monday presented a performance in which four girls changed from church clothes to angel wings — representative of the children killed when white supremacists bombed a black church, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. As the girls performing the dance read out the names of the victims they represented, the sound of their young voices tugged at the heart.

Four little girls.

Imagine someone bombing your church and killing four little girls because they thought you didn’t know your place.

The girls were innocents — victims in a war King and thousands of others determinedly fought with peace and persistence. The civil rights leader relied on faith, persuasion and nonviolence. That approach underscored the brute ignorance of those who opposed the movement.

Children are at the heart of the ongoing push for racial equity. We have come a long way from church bombings and firehoses, but we want an even better world for the next generation.

Shift gears for a minute. Think of four little boys. Think of four black boys growing up in our society today — four young men who struggle against a powerful tide to succeed in school and in life. What do their teachers and classmates expect of them? What kind of success does popular culture encourage them to pursue? If they are stopped by police, what preconceived notions might young black men encounter?

How safe do they feel?

Dr. Jimmy Jenkins and Dr. Brien Lewis, presidents of Livingstone and Catawba colleges, respectively, countered the memory of young lives tragically wasted by talking about the importance of education. Jenkins called education the “surest vehicle for upward mobility in the world.” Black or white, he said, the mission is the same for area colleges: helping students live up to their potential and claim their rightful places in the world.

Lewis said he had already seen some things in his lifetime he did not ever expect to see, such as Nelson Mandela walking out of prison a free man and going on to become the president of South Africa. Lewis quoted King: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently voiced the frustrations and hopes of millions of people. He was an extraordinary man whose words still urge us, long after his death, to strive for a better day. For the little girls, the little boys — for all our children.

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