Every year, Martin Luther King Jr. and his rich legacy are celebrated here at Groton through a weekend of activities that align with his vision of social justice and equality.
The weekend began with the play Open Admissions–– a powerful, intensely charged act about a black student who demands to be taught, and not merely shuffled through the system of his urban college. Performed by a student and a teacher, the play captures the inherent biases and double standards of an inadequate educational system, and tells the inspiring story of a student who strives to break from the walls of educational prejudice. I was inspired to reflect on the distinction between covert and blatant racism, and whether there really is any difference between a bias that is hidden and one that is openly expressed.
Our keynote speech this year was given by Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine (African American students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957). Inspired by Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, as well as the desire to get the best education available, Ms. LaNier enrolled in Central High School as a sophomore.
Ms. LaNier delivered a powerful message about freedom, equality, and the responsibility that all citizens have to make the world a better place. “No person is completely free,” she said, “unless we all are completely free, unless we all have equal access to schools, parks, stores, to churches.”
For me, one of the most striking things that Ms. LaNier shared was how we tend to glorify our heroes, giving ourselves an excuse to do less. When Ms. Lanier first met Dr. King, she said she did so out of a “sense of duty,” and that her most enduring memory of the encounter is one of Dr. King eating barbecue ribs and drinking a beer. She admitted that some think this image diminishes him, but reminded the audience that sometimes we want our heroes to seem superhuman, but in fact, Dr. King was like all of us, a son, a father, a husband, a human being with thoughts and weaknesses. By viewing leaders and heroes as real people, the community has fewer excuses to remain passive. “We all have gifts and talents,” Ms. Lanier said, “and we have to ask ourselves, how are we using them? Dr. King wasn’t a superhuman; he was just a man who put his gifts to work for the good of mankind. He would remind us that we all have a gift to share and a role in creating the kind of society that we desire.”
Every Martin Luther King Day that I’ve spent at Groton has prompted me to reflect on my outlook and perspective, and the impact of my actions on the community. This year especially, I was reminded that I, too—like everyone in every community—have strengths and talents to make society a better place.