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 they’re 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 Today’s 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 children’s, and the book’s, 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 haven’t 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 wouldn’t be born.”
King’s 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 boy’s house,” confides one 12-year-old. “We didn’t 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 he’d 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: “I’m 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 charge....”
Read that statement and the statements of every child in Dear Dr. King if you doubt that King’s 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.

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