Honoring the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Prior to the MLK Holiday on January 21, Chief Kanim Middle School students and staff participated in a heart-felt assembly that honored the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. In a packed school gymnasium, 850+ CKMS students ages 11-14 sat attentively (and respectfully) for a musical and historical journey of slavery, racism, pain, sorrow, hope and glory.
We thought all SVSD families may appreciate the compelling message and lesson in American history that was presented to the student body. The following script was compiled by history teachers Thomas Burford and Kristin O’Riordan and read by students, interspersed with jazz band performances, choir songs, and video of historical photos.
Enjoy this special (and somewhat lengthy) tribute… as we head into the holiday weekend!
“Today, as we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we will take a historical and musical journey from the cotton fields and depths of the evil practice of slavery, through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s, 60’s and beyond with the continued pursuit of equality for all. A change is going to come and there will be glory for all. We must all do our part to be part of the solution and believe in Dr. King’s Dream.
Shortly after Colonies were established in the New World, the first African slaves were brought to the American shores. Captured and torn away from their families, these slaves would have to endure a horrific journey across the Atlantic Ocean where they would be auctioned and sold into slavery. This terrible and dehumanizing practice began in 1619 and continued until 1865.
Life as a slave was often brutal and always oppressive. Any thought of freedom was forced out of the slave, either through threats of violence or far too often with the brutality of beatings which frequently involved the barbaric use of the bullwhip. Slaves were seen as heathens and ignorant by their white owners so the Bible and Christianity was introduced as a way to pacify and convert the slaves. Sunday was given as a day off from the hard work on the plantation. Slaves heard the words of Jesus and took comfort in those words, for they understood that even if they may never be free on this earth, they would be forever free in the next life.
Music provided the glory of God and the opportunity to escape, if only for a short moment, the degradation of slavery. These Negro or Black Spirituals became popular among the slaves and with many people today. The common theme of the spiritual can be summed up this way -- the slaves “…view life as a hard journey but hope to find eternal peace when death brings release from this valley of tears.”
Moving into the mid-1800’s, slavery had become a more and more divisive practice. Northern cries for the abolition of slavery were getting louder and louder, while southern slave owners were getting more defiant. The Abolition movement was actively involved in helping slaves who were trying to escape by running to the potential freedom of the northern states. They are helped in this journey by many brave Americans, black and white, male and female. Secrecy was key and the Underground Railroad was developed as a loose network of paths, routes and passages to help slaves running to freedom. Brave souls, such as Harriet Tubman and Peg Leg Joe, become known as conductors on this secret railroad. Slaves had to talk in code so that their white owners would not understand their plan to run away.
The choir sang several heart-felt songs during the assembly. First they performed Deep River
while black and white photos of slavery were displayed on a screen overhead. One of the most
famous and important songs of the time period, Follow the Drinking Gourd, had lyrics that
described the way to freedom – “if you can find the Big Dipper in the sky, you can always
find the North Star. Follow that star to Freedom.”
(Pictured above) Soloist Emma Sharkey led the choir in Change is Gonna Come,
written by Sam Cooke. Click here to watch a video of their performance.
After the Civil War, slavery was abolished and black men were given the right to vote. In 1870, the United States saw its first African American senator elected, Hiram Revels. However, the South quickly moved to limit the new found freedom of African Americans. Laws were passed throughout the South that segregated schools, water fountains, bathrooms, train cars, and other public and private places. The Ku Klux Klan was founded to intimidate African Americans and many were killed if they were perceived to challenge this new system of segregation.
As the fear and intimidation grew, many African Americans began to organize to bring about change. Organizations like the NAACP were formed to bring legal challenges to the system of segregation. At the same time, many men, women and students peacefully protested throughout the South. They sat at segregated lunch counters, marched on the streets, and traveled throughout the South at great risk to their own lives -- to force an end of segregation. One activist, Rosa Parks, famously refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white man. This act of civil disobedience sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and elevated the voice of a local minister to national fame -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two videos were shared:
- Oh Freedom! by the Golden Gospel Singers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veiJLhXdwn8)
- On Martin Luther King’s Legacy by Wynton Marsalis from CBS This Morning in 2012: https://wyntonmarsalis.org/news/entry/on-martin-luther-kings-legacy
Jazz students read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “On the Importance of Jazz”– his opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival:
“God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.
Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.
This is triumphant music.
Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.
It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.
Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.
And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.
In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”
The CKMS jazz band then played Blue Skies, written by Irving Berlin.
Dr. King’s successful leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott through non-violent methods started a movement which pushed for the equal rights of African Americans. In 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and in front of over 200,000 people, Dr. King delivered one of the most powerful and inspirational speeches in American History. His “I have a Dream” speech challenged us to do more than just accept inequality, segregation and racism. Freedom and equal rights are more than words -- they are actions. Within two years, Congress passes both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (ending segregation) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 further protecting the right to vote. Sadly, however, Dr. King’s non-violent movement was not always met with open minds and welcoming arms. Racism fueled attacks against the Civil Rights Movement, and Dr. King and other leaders were often met with vicious violence. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated.
The tragic murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not end the Civil Rights Movement but rather strengthened the resolve to see the “Dream” of equality and freedom become permanent -- not just for African Americans but for all citizens of the United States. While it is true that slavery ended 150 years ago and the United States has made huge strides towards equality, we still fight the ugly monster of racism. If you want change, you have to be willing to call out racism, whenever you come across it. But more than that, when you witness injustice, you must be willing to step up and be part of the solution, instead of a continuation of the problem. Believe in the Dream and you can make equality come true for all.
In their Academy Award winning song Glory, John Legend and Common wrote about the struggle of the early Civil Rights Movement to present day -- and how we must take the “wisdom of the elders and the young people’s energy” to achieve victory and glory. The assembly concluded by listening to John Legend’s – Glory Feat Common song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6BuXRTk5D4 which was featured in the 2014 movie Selma.