Reflecting on MLK, the Man and the Day


Lucy Peck and Ayesha Sen

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward,” Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said in his fight for racial equality. This Sunday, Head of Middle Division (MD) Javaid Khan began his weekly email to MD students with this quote along with a short explanation in order to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day.

All four divisions were off on Monday for MLK Day, which is designed to acknowledge King’s life and legacy. In order to raise awareness about the holiday, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly sent out a school-wide email providing background knowledge on King as well as a list of resources to learn more. 

The Lower Division (LD) teaches students across all grades about MLK’s legacy, Kindergarten to fifth in developmentally appropriate ways, Head of the LD, Deena Neuwirth said. “Young students are riveted during class discussions about Dr. Martin Luther King,” she said. “Whether grappling to understand the historical struggle of the civil rights movement, processing Dr. King’s messages of freedom, equity, and justice, or reflecting on their own need to stand up for injustice in this ever changing world, students of all ages are inspired by these themes.”

In the MD curriculum, the topic of King occasionally arises in a variety of classes, but unlike the LD, rather than being embedded into the course curriculums, King is embedded in assemblies. For instance, the entire month of January is now devoted to sharing students’ passion projects, advocacy, or bringing in activist speakers as a way of honoring King, Khan said. For instance, a disabilities activist came in to talk to the MD students last Thursday, and in addition to sharing her own story, she spoke extensively about King and what his message meant to her.

Following the day off, Sophia Paley (10) was surprised that her classes did not have any conversations or assignments relating to King, she said. In fact, Paley has noticed that students engaged more with the day when she was in the LD and MD. “My lower school class used to watch the ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ in order to commemorate King,” she said. However, in the Upper Division (UD), there is almost no discussion of King in Paley’s classes.

In the future, Paley hopes that classes will spend more time discussing King in school, she said. “I thought it was helpful that Dr. Kelly listed resources to look at for MLK day, but I think we should be having some of these conversations in class even if it’s just for a day or two,” she said.

Most UD history teachers do not have a specific day following MLK day where they talk about King, Chair of the UD History Department Dr. Daniel Link said. Rather, they aim to teach King in the context of the civil rights movement. “You can’t understand King without the civil rights movement,” he said. “And the stories of King and other members of the civil rights movement can motivate students to think about how they can fight for change.” 

The History Department always thinks actively about the curriculum and ways that they can make it relatable to students so that they can connect the past to the present, Link said. Specifically, the department should always be thinking through how they teach those themes so that students get a comprehensive history of King and the civil rights movement, he said. “We need to make sure we are honoring King and other African Americans by seeing and understanding and learning about dignity and resistance to oppression.”

While it is critical to honor King’s individual accomplishments, it is also critical to honor his contributions to the civil rights movement since King saw himself as one part of the larger movement, Link said. Learning about King is important as it helps students understand the civil rights movement, and vice versa, learning about the civil rights movement helps students understand King’s contributions to social justice, Link said.

Beyond the classroom environments, Paley believes individual reflection on King can be enlightening as well, she said. Learning more about King’s life story and what he fought for can give students more insight into history and teach them valuable lessons, Paley said. For instance, on Monday, Paley watched a segment on “The Today Show” about King, read an article about his legacy, looked through social media posts about his life, and browsed the resources that Kelly listed.  

Clio Rao (11) also believes anyone can benefit from understanding King’s values, she said. “We need to reflect on how [King’s] ideals have shaped civil rights, at least as in the way we’ve seen it in the nation today, and we need to examine this idea deeper than what the standard education system exposes us to,” she said. “We need to really understand what King stood for and appreciate how his ideas are so applicable to our modern day society.”

Link spent the day rereading some of King’s work and reflecting on how he could incorporate King into his classes, he said. He recommends that students listen or read the entirety of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he said.

On this day each year, Khan always spends time reading quotes from King. 

Rao urges the school community to reflect more on King’s principles, she said. “While I know, of course, that everyone loves an extra day of school off or a long weekend, I think that it is also really important to take a piece of the day to reflect on, not just the fact that it’s Martin Luther King’s birthday, but also really understand the complexities of what he fought for,” she said.

“Hopefully people are taking away a message that matters to them,” Khan said. King’s story will be influential to a student who is thinking about what influence they can have. Khan said. It is crucial to not forget the people who have fought hard for us to experience the things we experience now, he said. 

History teacher and Dean of the Class of 2025 Susan Groppi believes that it is also important to reflect on the difficult moments in King’s struggle, she said. “We have a tendency to ignore the parts of MLK’s life that are hard because people like to focus on the softer parts, but we need to remember that it’s based on struggle and violence,” she said.

Looking towards the future, Neuwirth believes the best way to appreciate King is to reflect on the methods by which he is remembered and adjust them based on the overall societal attitude in comparison to the respect that King deserves, she said. “As an institution, we are constantly looking forward in terms of what we can do better,” Neuwirth said.

Ultimately, Groppi believes that it is important to recognize that King’s struggle is still relevant today. “This is an ongoing struggle, and extra significance needs to be put on the fact that it’s not over,” she said. “The things that he fought for, like racial equality, are not fully formed yet, and we need to keep working on it. That is how we can honor him.”