Not Your Average MLK Assembly


Spotlight on Sidwell: Not Your Average MLK Assembly
By Jennifer Arrington
Teaching for Change

Beginning in January with Martin Luther King’s birthday through February’s twenty-eight days (twenty-nine if we’re lucky) our schools are immersed in a two month panic to refresh and remember Black history. Year in and year out the familiar stories resurface. Rosa refused to move. King had a dream and Malcolm had an agenda. In our effort to recapture our past, we too often deny our full history.

The first in the auditorium, I was met with the typical teenage anti-assembly gripes, “Not another one” and “Here we go again.” Amused, I anxiously awaited their reaction to today’s presentation. I knew that this year’s assembly was different. The featured presenter was Jenice View, an eighth-grade public charter school teacher, education and training director of a national economic and environmental justice organization, and proud Washington, DC Sidwell Friends School parent. She was invited to speak because her work today keeps the Movement moving. For more than 20 years, View has worked with a variety of nongovernmental organizations to create space for the voices that are often excluded from public policy.

With hopes to change not only the content, but also the format of Black History Month assemblies, View designed the presentation to be both informative and interactive, incorporating the physical movement of students in her talk. Using a quiz created specifically for high school students and designed around the resource guide she co-edited, Putting the Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching, the Myth Busters Quiz was crafted to dispel myths commonly associated with the Civil Rights Movement and in turn shock students back into interest. To learn, as defined by Webster, is to commit to memory. If learning isn’t exciting, it isn’t remembered.

The Civil Rights Movement was about people making change. Studying it is important so we can learn how to make change today,” View began. She used her arms to demonstrate, “Respond with an X for False or an O for True.” Enthused by their ability to participate, and I believe empowered by the request for their own voice to be heard, this annual assembly was looking a lot less familiar.

Question one: During the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) the federal government provided each male, freed from slavery, with forty acres and a mule. Instantly, 600 hands flew into position all across the auditorium. The consensus of Xs was correct. This may have been a give away it seemed, but important as a first question. Encouraged by their proven aptitude, students eagerly awaited question two.

Question two: True or False? Oregon had the largest number of Ku Klux Klan membership during the 1920s? Arms fly into the air again. X’s and O’s mixing like alphabet soup. False resounded mostly, both aloud by the adamant and in silent formation by the unsure. In fact Oregon, as many Western and Midwest states, held substantial membership in the Klan. At its peak in the 1920s, the Klan had over 6 million members, even Canadians. Denver’s membership alone included two US Senators, the governor, the mayor and the chief of police! Exposing the vastness of the Klan counters the idea of racism being solely a Southern plight.

Question three: The overarching goal of the Civil Rights Movement was integration and full access to all bus seats. True or False? Again, the response was mixed. Those so sure before, now took time with their armed answers. Hesitating, even flailing their arms back and forth between the two options. “False,” View announces. Variations of “ows” and “ohs” resonate as the myth is revealed and subsequently, busted. That to me was the sound of satisfaction. The shock level I was listening for.

View asked the students a total of twelve questions, each followed by information to further defy the myth.

After the quiz the assembly moved into an even more interactive arena. Students already spread through out the auditorium, prompted by their cue, rose to their feet individually and recited the less-celebrated words of Dr. Martin Luther King. King’s legacy often omits his work for social, economic and global justice. Taking again from the Movement book, View used Craig Gordon’s lesson, Hidden in Plain Sight: Martin Luther King Jr’s Radical Vision. It was developed to help students examine and compare the media’s historical portrayal of King with the one they themselves establish after hearing his less known words.

Twelve students echoed Kings words for their peers. Everyone listened intently, unaware that their fellow classmates were as much a part of this assembly as View herself. Student one read an excerpt from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, discounting any image of King as passive. Other student quotes ranged in subject from complacent white moderates and national healthcare to Black Nationalism, labor unions and fittingly, war.

… I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” -“Beyond Vietnam,” Address,” Riverside Church, New York, April 4, 1967.

There was a reflective tone and resonance that followed the student monologues. A quiet realization of work left undone and yet the promise that cooperative effort and shared responsibility do ensure change. How better to honor a man on the day of his birth than with his words. How better to honor these students, than with the truth. Programs and assemblies like this celebrate more than a man’s memory; they inspire the Movement that exists in us all. Sidwell Friend’s mission statement states, “At a good school teachers and students are jointly engaged in a search for truth.”

Today—student, teacher, or conscious observer somewhere in between, I certainly found myself at a “good” school assembly! Special thanks to Sidwell Friends and Auysha Muhayya, Upper School Diversity Coordinator, Jenice View and of course the eager-to-learn, ready-for-change students of Sidwell.

Thanks to Sidwell Friends Diversity Coordinator Auysha Muhayya for not only organizing the event but also formatting the power point presentation.