On March 14, students Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School walked out of their school and through their Grand Center neighborhood in St. Louis, stopping on the steps of St. Francis Xavier College Church.
Among the Cardinal Ritter students who took part in the walkout, were two members of the school’s student council: Deja Brown, 17, is senior class president, and Darius White, 16 who is a sophomore class officer.
They were not alone. As part of a coordinated nationwide plan, the Cardinal Ritter students and their counterparts at other metro area St. Louis schools, showed their support for improved school safety and tighter gun-control measures after the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
With the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s April 4, 1968, assassination in mind, St. Louis Public Radio’s Ashley Lisenby talked with the two studentsabout today's activism in light of King’s legacy. The interview has been edited for clarity.
ASHLEY: I want to start by asking the question, what does it mean to be an activist to you? Darius, can you start?
DARIUS: To me, being an activist is a person in the community who is experiencing all of this, all the things around them. They actually take a stand. One person taking a stand, demanding for things to change.
DEJA: An activist to me is someone who really believes in something and they are able to stand behind it and protest or put their mark in showing others, ‘This is important to me and this issue is not just going to be overlooked.”
ASHLEY: Do you both embrace that title of being an activist? Or do you call yourself something else?
DEJA: Well, for me I would say I’m an activist in my own way. Right now, just being in high school, I’m not an activist like on a national level. But within my school, if I see an issue, then I’m going to talk about it and talk to the administration and other people I know that care about it.
DARIUS: Do I embrace the title of being an activist? No. But I do take on the responsibility of being an activist, given that I am a student leader. We both are. Once we sign up to be in student council we take on that action, we have to take on that responsibility. So everyday we walk into Cardinal Ritter, even outside of Cardinal Ritter, we have to have that on our chest. We walk around as activists, even if we don’t embrace the title.
ASHLEY: What issues are important to you and what issues do you think are important to your generation?
DEJA: If you search "gun violence" and "shootings within schools" you’ll see that this has been going on for decades, a really, really long time. And it’s still happening. Actually, it’s getting worse. It’s April 2nd, but we already have so many school shootings in 2018 alone. It’s only getting worse.
And racism. It has gotten better, but it’s still alive and it’s still active in America. It’s so many people, like Darius, an African-American male, walking out into the streets. You may be scared just because of the color of your skin, that something might happen to you that day. Or driving in your car, nothing’s wrong but just because you’re in the wrong neighborhood and the wrong time you can get pulled over.
DARIUS: It’s the same thing happening over and over again because nobody is really digging at the core of the situation. Why is all this happening? Part of the reason is our history, but a lot of people don’t understand their history. So if you don’t understand your history, you won’t understand what led up to this point.
ASHLEY: So, Dr. King is a part of that history, of social activism. As well as many other figures. But we’re looking this week at the 50th anniversary of his assassination. With that in mind, how do you think his work influences the movements that are happening now?
DARIUS: Dr. King not only protested but he also went and did some work behind closed doors. He went to government officials. Government officials were even helping him get to that point. Before the protests, what led to the protests was him going and saying, 'what can we get changed?' Peaceful. Paperwork. Paper trail. You have to actually get something to back you up.
DEJA: Seeing that Dr. King did more than just protest, we need to get people who actually have power or a stance that can change stuff. We are the voice, but we need people to listen and hear our voice and go to work to change the issues that are happening.
ASHLEY: On a local scale, you mentioned the walkout at your high school and I asked you earlier how do you think that walkout went and are people actually listening. So, what do you think? Are people listening to you?
DEJA: I think the walkout was successful. Not only our schools but other schools did it. And I know that there are many people listening and, during the time we’re in now, you’re going to need more than just a couple of people to listen and understand what’s going on. I know there are a lot of people listening and I hope they take heed to what we’re saying and how we feel about this. We're showing that we want to be able to control our future and [we want people to] stand behind us to help us get to the point where we feel safe in our own communities.
ASHLEY: Do you see yourselves as being these kind of leaders on a national scale or even leaders on a local scale? Who is that person? Who are those people?
DEJA: It’s not just one person who can be like Dr. King, I feel like anybody, as long as you’re strong enough and prepared to face the backlash that might come at you for stepping up and voicing your opinion, that you can be like Dr. King and take a stand and be that symbol of change and activism that we were just talking about.
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.