More than 350 people gathered at New York City’s Riverside Church on Monday to kick off Manhattan Country School’s 29th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March. Organized by the school’s eighth-graders, this event is one way the MCS community honors the slain civil rights leader who served as an inspiration for the school's founding.
(MCS MLK March in the Media: DNAinfo: Students Speak About Civil and Human Rights Issues at Annual MLK Jr. March; WABC-TV: Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Honors Civil Rights Icon with National Day of Service ; ChinaDaily.com: People March to Commemorate Martin Luther King [Photos])
In Riverside’s Assembly Hall, families, teachers and staff, alumni, and supporters from across New York City listened to the first four of the 22 speeches about contemporary civil rights issues that would be delivered by the eighth-graders during the course of the march. This year’s march theme, “We Will Not Be Silenced: A Call to Action,” was inspired by Dr. King’s quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” In this time of political change, the eighth-graders felt it was more important than ever to speak out about the civil rights issues that are impacting today’s world.
Eighth-grader Osiris opened the event with a speech about the devastating, long-term impact of slavery and the dire need for reparations. He offered the following to set the stage for his argument:
“As a result of the bloody Civil War, the millions of enslaved people were supposedly free to migrate into American life as if they hadn’t been there for two-and-a-half centuries. There was no apology, no 40 acres, no compensation for the harm done. Instead of freedom they faced discrimination, hostility, lynchings and systematic racism.
“As we stand here on MLK Day another 150 years after the [Emancipation] Proclamation, in this historic church where Martin Luther King, Jr. himself spoke, there is another problem. It is a problem that Dr. King knew well. It is the grandchild of slavery and the child of racism; the crippling pandemic that affects the black and brown descendants of enslaved people: economic injustice.”
After hearing the four speeches at Riverside Church, Councilmember Helen Rosenthal addressed the crowd. “These eighth-graders have integrated into their bones the teachings of Martin Luther King—the importance of civil rights, the importance of love and the importance of a path to peace,” she said. "For the sake of the next generation, I hope these eighth-graders are our future leaders.”
In the wake of the recent presidential election and with important New York City elections to come this year, Rosenthal urged MCS students and others in attendance to be “high-information voters”—those who do their own research about political candidates instead of relying on what is fed to them by the media.
MCS accompanist Nehemiah Luckett then led the crowd in singing a few verses of “Oh, Freedom” before they took to the streets. Carrying signs with messages of equity, justice and peace and singing freedom songs, the group walked a three-mile route that included stops at Columbia University, the Harriet Tubman Statue, Morningside Park and Bridge NY. At each stop, students delivered passionate speeches on civil rights issues, including mass incarceration, sexual violence, reproductive rights, climate change, LGBTQI rights and anti-Muslim bias.
The march concluded in the Gym in Manhattan Country School’s new home on West 85th Street. Jack, the grandson of MCS founders Gus and Marty Trowbridge, closed the series of speeches with the following remarks:
“I urge all the young people in the crowd who want change to be made on an issue that you care about to not underestimate the power that you have as children. Martin Luther King Jr., the organizers of the Lawrence strike in 1912, and my grandparents didn’t. I encourage you to take action on the issues that are important to you in any way possible, whether it be calling a phone number, signing or writing a letter to your elected representatives, or signing a petition proposed by my classmates…. 2016 has caused much hate and division, especially through the presidential election. If we all work together and take action together, we can remedy this in 2017 and beyond.”
Attendees of this year’s march had the opportunity to join the MCS eighth-graders in taking action. During each speech, students held signs with phone numbers for people to call or text to speak out about an issue or show support for an organization. At the school, there were petitions to sign.
The annual march illustrates the impact of the social justice and activism education students receive during their time at MCS. Working with English Teacher Tom Grattan, the school’s eighth-graders spend several weeks planning the march, including selecting the march theme and route and writing their own speeches. In the process they hone a host of skills including brainstorming, collaborating and negotiating, as well as conducting research and writing persuasively. They also learn from the experience how important both literacy and leadership are in producing public outcomes.
“The march is a milestone I look forward to every year as a way to judge how well curriculum is integrated with social justice and activism at MCS,” said MCS Director Michèle Solá. “It also puts on display the kind of moral compass that emerges from years of probing questions and nurturing teachers. This eighth grade’s excitement about organizations devoted to contemporary issues of injustice is equally matched by their respect for history. I am especially pleased to be a witness to what meaning the event carries for our growing community, for alumni and their families, and for partner organizations.”
Portions of the eighth-graders' speeches can be viewed in the video section of the Manhattan Country School Facebook page. A publication of all the students’ speeches will be available in print and online next month.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March is just one example of the social justice and activism work supported by generous contributions to The MCS Fund. To learn more, visit manhattancountryschool.org/support-mcs/mcs-fund.
View more photos from the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March.