On Monday, the 35th anniversary of the federal holiday marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Valley Streamer Solomon Akaeze, 15, said he thought about his time in middle school two years earlier when he faced racism through bullying.
On occasions like MLK Day, he said, he is flooded with memories of the times when other students laughed at and taunted him nearly daily with pejoratives like “the darker skinned, white-washed kid.”
Whenever he thought about retaliating against the bullies, Akaeze said, he held back and focused on what he described as the “Dr. Martin Luther King way.” King was nonviolent, Akaeze said, but he was never silent or neutral in the face of oppression.
Now a sophomore at Central High School, Akaeze decided last September to take action himself, harnessing his painful experiences to create an anti-racist student club at the school called Students Committed to Social Justice.
“Going through the school system as a dark-skin Black man has always been extremely hard, and I don’t want to see other students go through racism like I did,” Akaeze said. “I created my club to be a safe space where students of all races can share their fears and experiences with racism for the purpose of empowering others through discussions where we dissect racism so we can work against it. It’s not enough to not be racist; we have to be anti-racist.”
Although the work is far from finished, Akaeze said he has found a community of support in the nearly 25 student members in seventh through 12th grades who meet as part of the club each week. He has also spent time educating others about racism during club meetings.
Aniyah Dingle, 15, a Valley resident and Central sophomore, said that after joining SCSJ, she realized there are younger students who need to be educated about social injustice, and the club has given her the opportunity to be a role model to those younger students, she said.
As a Black woman, Dingle said she grew up in a generation with wide access to the internet from a young age, and she experienced racism through cyberbullying on many times. She didn’t retaliate against the bullies with violence, she said, because she was educated about King’s nonviolent approach.
“Whether it was passive racism or simply blatant racism, I’ve learned that the best way to dismantle the enemy is by using logic, facts and educating them on their prejudices against me,” Dingle said. “Learning about the legacy MLK has left behind as a major figure in the civil rights movement has helped me to adopt his way of thinking, which is that we cannot hate others, despite the hate that they give us, if we ever want a truly equal world.”
Another Black Valley Stream resident and Central High School sophomore, Lluvy Lewis, 15, said she joined SCSJ to find a community where she could speak out on issues that affect her fellow members of the Black community.
Lewis said she would never forget when she was called the N-word on the soccer field in her earlier years of school. At the time, she said, she followed King’s method of peaceful resistance by acknowledging the hurt that she felt, but not reacting aggressively.
“Dr. King showed me how being Black is a blessing, rather than a curse worthy of being punished for,” Lewis said. “When people are being racist or trying to discourage me because of the color of my skin, I look to Martin Luther King’s teachings for security in my identity.”
Lewis said SCSJ has helped her realize there is a group of young people who want to see change and who believe that the move toward equality starts with educating youth everywhere.
“SCSJ allows me to feel heard as a person of color,” she said. “Also, through SCSJ, I have become a part of many other communities, and I have heard a collective melting pot of experiences, goals and fears—which continues to inspire me daily.”
As founder and president of SCSJ, Akaeze said she does not shy away from discussions of racially motivated crimes, including the recent storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 by a mostly white mob attempting to overturn the election of President Joe Biden.
“Racial division is still very alive in our modern world today, and we witnessed this in the recent storm on the Capitol, so our society desperately needs more education in this area,” Akaeze said. “I know if Dr. King were here today, he would want people to respond to that blatant display of white supremacy with peace and unity under the eye of God. Once we start educating our youth more, it will only lead to more adults like Dr. King, which will lead to true lasting change.”
For other Valley Stream residents, they also said they found themselves deep in thought on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, not just about the impact that King left on the world, but also the state of the country so many decades after his assassination.
“Martin Luther King brought unity and provided a vision of hope when people needed it so much, and today we need someone like him even more with what has been happening recently,” said Valley Streamer Steve Vaccaro, 56. “As a kid who grew up living in many foster homes, I would see people that I lived with fight or handle issues with love, and I would always admire and strive to achieve the Dr. King nonviolent approach in those circumstances.”