Every year, Mary McDowell Friends School commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday with all-school activities. This year, on Thursday, January 22nd, middle school students (who received permission) and upper school students attended a screening of the movie Selma, and elementary school classes saw Selma, Lord, Selma. (Selma, Lord, Selma is a 1999 film based on the events of Bloody Sunday told through the eyes of an 11-year-old African American girl.) Afterwards, students and staff in each division gathered for panel discussions with members of the MMFS community who had gone on a school-sponsored tour of the major sites of the Civil Rights movement last year.
Many excellent movies have been made about the civil rights movement; however, we felt that it was important for students (who are old enough) to see Selma, a contemporary film, especially in light of the racial issues in the news right now. Students wrote their responses to the film, some of which can be read here.
Panel discussions began with Silence. The panelists, comprised of students, faculty members, and family members, shared their experiences on the civil rights trip and answered questions. The trip included visits to Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham in Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia. They were in Selma for the weekend that commemorated the 49th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Then the floor was opened to comments from everyone.
It was an emotional day for many members of our community. Uncomfortable feeling came up. Some students shed tears. Panel discussions were very powerful; great questions were asked. Many students learned for the first time that Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished a lot more than the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Many middle and elementary school students didn’t realize that he was involved in other events. Middle school students were surprised that people of different races and religions joined with African Americans to march. A middle school student who was a panelist spoke about how the portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma as a person with fears, doubts, and tensions in his marriage, made him seem stronger because it revealed that Dr. King chose his course over and over again. The student realized that Dr. King could have chosen an easier, safer way.
In the upper school, panelists were asked to share how their experiences on the civil rights trip informed them as they watched the movie. Other questions that came up included: Why do members of the MMFS community go on a civil rights trip? Why do we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.? A student panelist explained that in his mind the Quaker testimonies of peace, equality, community, and service lead us to do so. Several conversations centered on connecting past events to the present and then taking those achievements and lessons learned into the future. Panelist Beth Schneider, Associate Head of School, talked about the continuing importance and power of the right to vote, which the civil rights activists risked their lives to obtain for all Americans, regardless of color. Her impassioned remarks motivated the upper school to organize voter registration for students turning 18 this year. The arc of the day moved from viewing (absorbing information) to discussing to taking action.
Watching the movies and taking part in the conversations that followed challenged all of us at MMFS, staff and students, to ask hard questions. This practice prepares our students to ask hard questions, consider all perspectives, and to be active members of their communities as they grow up.