From Classroom To Book
Memphis schoolchildren write to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in
their own words.
by Leonard Gill
n 1968, Ann McMillan Harms was 23 years old, into her second year
of teaching, and one of two whites on the faculty of Cummings
Elementary in South Memphis. And yet, as Harms remembers it, the
shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of that year was
an event that happened elsewhere, as if on another planet.
An unsettling time is how she recalled, in a recent interview,
when news of that event reached the classroom a time of spreading
rumor and charged atmosphere for her first-graders, and a time
when she still wishes she had had the judgment to show more concern.
Today, Harms is an award-winning teacher at Grahamwood Elementary
in Memphis. Her friend and former librarian with the Memphis Public
Library, Jan Colbert, is a full-time mom in South Carolina.
But theyre editors too of a book that is already receiving national
attention (think Oprah Winfrey and The New York Times). The book
is called Dear Dr. King: Letters from Todays Children to Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (Hyperion Books for Children, 63 pp.,
$14.95), and it deserves your attention as well.
This book grew from discussions with school principals and teachers,
parents and children, Colbert and Harms point out in their introduction.
As Dr. King came alive again, through study and reading, we encouraged
a group of Memphis teachers to suggest their students write letters
to him, posing questions or telling about their own lives and
feelings, their perceptions of the past, or dreams for the future.
Those letters, drawn from students at eight Memphis City Schools,
reached roughly a thousand in number, and just over a hundred
appear in Dear Dr. King. Ernest Withers gave Colbert and Harms
access to his landmark civil-rights photos from the Sixties. Flyer
photographer Roy Cajero supplied the contemporary images (and
caught the childrens, and the books, many moods). And graphic
designer Wycliffe Smith combined them all into a handsome whole.
What amazed us most, Harms and Colbert report and as their
cross-section shows, was how comfortable the children felt in
writing to Dr. King. Clearly, the faith of grandparents who marched
with him, parents who continue to share his ideals, and teachers
who tell of his life and legacy has been firmly instilled in this
new generation a generation, according to the editors, hungry
for heroes and, from the look of these letters, as inspired by
the past as they are hopeful and fearful over the way things stand.
The playful and the merely curious havent been left out altogether
however: Did you have verbs when you were in school? a child
asks in one letter. How did you march? Were your feet hurting?
asks another. Things have changed a lot since you were alive,
observes a third. Blacks and whites can share everything now.
If not, I wouldnt be born.
Kings approachability and ongoing influence is the more
evident, though, the tougher the issues: One day me and my friends
were riding our bikes and we rode past a white boys house, confides
one 12-year-old. We didnt say anything to him, but he called
us NIGGERS. My friends went back and said something to him,
but I went home. The reason I went home was because I knew who
I was and not what he wanted me to be.
That scene is at least a category of racism King would have recognized
(and a reaction to it hed have endorsed). Would he so readily
recognize the shadow of drug-related violence, black-on-black
crime, and gang activity that clouds too many of these lives?
If you were alive today, one child sums up to King, you would
go into shock. America has become all about death writes another.
And in the chilling words of yet another: Im 11 years old. I
was shot when I was 8 years old. I was shot, but unlike you, I
survived. ... I would have taken your bullet.
I wish that your dream could come true, writes Cortez, age
13. You would not believe how things are going nowadays. ...
Dr. King, this is the time that we need you the most, although
we understand that you cannot be here to help us through these
trials and tribulations. We also understand that you have done
all you could for us on this earth. Now I think we should take
Read that statement and the statements of every child in Dear
Dr. King if you doubt that Kings legacy is alive and in the proper
hands. Harms and Colbert and all who contributed to this project
have shown the proper hand too.
A portion of the sales of Dear Dr. King will go into a fund for
Memphis schoolchildren to visit the National Civil Rights Museum.
Booksignings are scheduled in February; check the Flyer s This
Week listings for details. n
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