In the spirit of our Summer Institute, we kicked off 2017 with the MLK Day of Empowerment designed to give students insight into the life of Dr. King beyond his “I Have A Dream” speech. In surveying the landscape of what happens in schools as well as talking to parents, it seems that it is most convenient and safe to focus on a few passages from the message, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, such as the idea of children of all ethnicities being able to hold hands as “brothers and sisters” or Black children being judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. These are desirable goals for society indeed, but they have also served to overshadow Dr. King’s larger, more controversial goals. The ones that lead to him being called a communist. The ones that forced segments of Black people to turn on him. Any study of Dr. King that does not include a study of his “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” or his “Beyond Vietnam” speech is incomplete and creates an inaccurate portrait of the man who sacrificed his life for civil rights. This is why the Day of Empowerment is necessary.
This year the Day of Empowerment hosted a dozen students, many of whom took part in our Summer Institute. The primary goal whenever we host an event is that the children will have an opportunity to bond and make connections that we hope will last long after they have all graduated college. For many of our attendees, they spend of the majority of their time in school as the only ethnic minority or one of few. To be able to participate in an event where that is not the case is a welcome change and we are determined to continue to create such spaces. Once students got settled, we spent time watching a History Channel documentary on Dr. King which covered his life from his earliest involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott to his participation in the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis. The students participated in discussions with teaching assistants at different points in the movie to understand what they watched and answer analytical questions. The day concluded with an art activity where students made stained glass windows using crayons, waxed paper and a silhouette of Dr. King.
The takeaway from this event was that though it is a necessary part of our history to understand, it is not easy for young children to watch as Civil Rights marchers were sprayed with fire hoses, beaten by police officers, and assaulted at lunch counters. There was an audible gasp as they learned about the Four Little Girls who died in the 16th St. Church bombing. In contrast, the Day created a greater appreciation for Dr. King’s sacrifices and laid the foundation for some conversations I hope the children continue to have with their parents. One of the most poignant questions of the day questioned why Black people were the victims of such aggressive racism when they were not the only ethnic minorities living in the country? There is no simple answer, but it is certainly something worth researching. We look forward to continuing to offer events like this in 2017 and beyond because it is reaffirmed each time we do an event that they are truly necessary for our children.