A generation later, Dr. King still inspires

Published: Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 9:20 p.m.

On a warm February evening in 1976, Nonar Walton looked out on the people gathered at the newly-built Downtown Plaza and read aloud a poem she had written about the civil rights movement entitled, "200 Years From Now."

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Buchholz High School senior LeNonar Elaina Walton is this year's recipient of the Edna M. Hart Keeper of the Dream scholarship.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun

The community was gathered to honor the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for one of the first times in Gainesville's history.

This Monday, her granddaughter, Buchholz High School senior LeNonar Elaina Walton, will stand in the same spot and deliver a speech about King, the same man who inspired her grandmother 32 years before. Walton, this year's recipient of the Edna M. Hart Keeper of the Dream scholarship, is proof that King's message has resonated through the generations.

The $2,500 scholarship, awarded by the Martin Luther King Commission of Florida, Inc., is given each year to young adults who exemplify the qualities of King's work. Academic achievement, civic involvement and leadership roles are all requirements to earn the award.

"It is very important to give young people like Elaina a voice in this celebration," said Rodney Long, chairman of the MLK Commission. "After all, they are our future."

Walton learned about the civil rights struggle both at school and at home. Storytelling was a rich tradition in Walton's childhood, and the stories about The Rev. King were plenty. Of all of King's teachings, however, Walton said that she was inspired most by his letters written during his imprisonment.

"He had no thesaurus, no dictionary, nothing, and he was able to pour himself out on paper in this inspiring, extravagant language," she said.

Even though she was born 22 years after King's death, Walton says that his influence is still strong. She says she can see it at Buchholz, where students of all races mingle freely.

"I'm really positive about our generation," she said. "At my school it's really a melting pot, which is pretty inspiring. I wish (King) could see it."

Walton first learned of the scholarship through her involvement with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority's program to reach out to outstanding high schoolers. She was invited to join based on her honor-roll grades and community involvement. Her mentor, Diyonne McGraw, suggested she apply for the award, telling her that she would be a great candidate. A month later, Walton was surprised to learn that she had won.

"It's such an honor to be able to represent Martin Luther King," she said.

Besides doing well academically, Walton chooses to reach out to the community through dance, a hobby she's had since the age of 3. She teaches 7- to 10-year-olds at the Madear's Kids World of Stars, a cultural center for at-risk children where her mother, Felicia Walton, is artistic director. Also, Walton still dances with the Iridescence Dance Troupe, which has performed at many of the past King celebrations.

Felicia Walton, a retired Duval County school teacher, is ecstatic that she will be able to witness her daughter speaking from the same stage where she remembers her mother speaking years before.

"Having lived through that era, it was our wish to lay a path that the current generation would want to follow," she said. "King took on that responsibility for us and to see Elaina represent that message is just incredible."

Although not quite done with the application process, Walton hopes to be able to use her scholarship to attend the political science program at UF. Afterwards she plans to go to law school to become a contract lawyer, a decision that was influenced by King's mantra of passive resistance.

"Words are your most powerful asset - it doesn't have to go straight to the physical," she said. "There are better ways to fight the system, which is why I want to become a lawyer."

But for now she is content on using words to spread King's message to her local community preceding this year's Annual Commemorative March downtown.

"It is so important for us to not take his work in vain," she said. "There are so many other countries today that don't have the rights that we have, so don't take it for granted."

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