Every January ushers in a new year and another Martin Luther King Day Celebration at my school. As the day of our school-wide assembly nears, inevitably I hear some kid let out an exasperated sigh and a comment along the lines of, "MLK, again? We've been doing the whole 'I Have a Dream' thing since elementary school!" And then I realize what can go amiss with MLK Celebrations if we're not careful. If we put the responsibility for the Civil Rights Movement on the shoulders of one man, we negate the fact that all those nameless, faceless people in the crowd on the Washington Mall were themselves agents of change and upstanders for justice. While the intention of showcasing and honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is to inspire and motivate our students, I've heard some kids express a sense of futility that they will never have the kind of impact or reach of MLK or that the problem of justice is so big and seemingly insurmountable, they feel defeated just thinking about it.
To combat this, I've taken a different approach to MLK Day. Rather than reteach my students what they've already learned about an iconic figure, I talk about what it meant for people to participate in the Civil Rights Movement and what it means for even one person to take a stand. One of my favorite clips that demonstrates the power of one person taking a stand is from the PBS movie The Freedom Riders. Janie Forsyth McKinney was only 12 years old when she chose to assist injured riders whose bus was firebombed near her father's store in Anniston, Alabama. (To see a clip about Janie, click here.) We talk about her decision to be an upstander rather than a bystander and the difference that her choice made not just in the lives of the freedom riders, but in the life of Janie and in her family's life as well. And I remind students that once we choose to act, even in small ways, we begin to see ourselves as agents of change and it is that shift in perspective that is often most powerful.