Students Delve Into Civil Rights Issues in Virtual Town Hall on Dr. King’s Birthday

By Denisa R. Superville — January 17, 2015 6 min read
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From the Ferguson-Florissant school district in Missouri to Tampa, Fla., students this week came together for a virtual town hall discussion on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, its historical context and the address’ resonance in contemporary America.

The event, hosted by the Rochester City school district in New York, and held Jan. 15— the civil rights leader’s actual birthday—allowed students in nine schools in New York City; Camden, N.J.; Tulsa, Okla.; Los Angeles; Atlanta; and Pontiac, Mich., to offer different perspectives on the civil rights movement, analyses of specific components of King’s speech, and evidence of whether the vision King laid out in his speech had been realized.

Some students also explored how the demonstrations that started last summer after Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, and more recently, the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City, fit with the speech’s themes. In both cases, the victims were black and grand jurors declined to indict the white police officers involved.

Students were the teachers, and the classroom was virtual.

They delved into four themes in the 1963 address King delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, devoting time to both history and present day. Students discussed segregation and discrimination; unearned suffering; unrest, discontent, demonstration; and the dream. Each segment was followed by a poll.

Under the segregation and discrimination theme, for example, students at Dr. Martin Luther King School in Rochester looked at examples of discrimination and segregation that propelled the civil rights movement—from segregation in housing and schools, unlawful arrests, restricted voting rights, intimidation from the Klu Klux Klan, to unfair working conditions for professional athletes.

“They were treated like they did not even matter,” a young, spectacled boy said in soft voice as he and his classmates listed concrete examples of unequal treatment for African-Americans.

Students at MetEast High School in Camden provided the present day context, exploring whether segregation and discrimination still persisted today. Among their examples was wealth disparity even for similarly-educated whites and blacks.


Sophomores and juniors at McCluer South-Berkeley High School in Ferguson-Florissant presented a near seven-minute-long video that captured the viewpoints of their school community—including teachers and students, black and white, young and older—on whether King’s dream had become a reality.

The video included King reciting his famous lines over a montage of historical footage and images from this past summer and the fall protests in Ferguson.

The results from their interviews reflected what other schools also found: There has been progress, but more still needs to be done.

One white teenager—who noted that she was a minority student in the predominately black school—said she thought that Dr. King’s dream had been realized.

Noting discord among people of different races and even within the same communities, one black student said he got the impression that people had heard the speech, but they appeared not to have heeded the message.

“We hear it, people recite it during Black History Month, but the question is, do they actually listen to it?” he said. “They don’t, because if they did, we would not be having these problems now.”

Matt Clermont, an English teacher, also had a measured perspective.

“Martin Luther King’s dream, I believe, has been realized in part, but not fully,” he said. “You look around, and I think a lot of what he dreamed about has come to pass, But when we see the tension that still exists—racial tension that exists in the world today—I would have to say that this is not what he dreamed of. There was more... We’ve come a long way. We’re part-way there, but his dream definitely went beyond where we are in 2015.”

The presentations were at times emotional. A student in Camden recited a poem about the plight of black men, the pains of their mothers, and policing in black communities.

“Why is it only our people hitting the ground?” according to a line from the poem.

One school put the “American dream” on trial in “The Dream V. The United States of America.” Using language from King’s speech, they argued in defense of and against the position that America had delivered on its “promissory note” to every American. (They concluded that the jury was still out.)

Students at Samuel Gompers Middle School in Los Angeles noted some evidence of progress: President Obama, the first African-American president; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to hold that position; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who ran as Sen. John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign; and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the first female Indian-American to be governor of a state.

The virtual town hall on King’s speech was the brainchild of Van Henri White, the president of the Rochester City Board of Education and the chairman of the Council of Urban Boards of Education.

White, a civil rights lawyer, said: “The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has always been about and continues to be about inspiration and instruction, particularly when it comes to young people. Therefore it is fitting that this conversation about civil rights take place between students from all backgrounds and regions of the country.”

White, who led the session from a classroom in Rochester, also noted the power of the internet in bringing diverse group of students from all across the country to discuss the topic.

Cisco Systems provided free technical assistance to host the event and a put a technician at the site of each school that participated.

The Rochester district also created an instructional toolkit for districts and lesson plans with learning targets for both teachers and students.

Looking toward the future

The national virtual town hall was taking place as a new generation takes stock of the civil rights movement. Many school districts are availing themselves of free and reduced price tickets to see the movie “Selma” as a way to further understanding of the civil rights movement.

Thousands of students in Washington, New York City and Dallas will be able to see the movie for free. In Jennings, Mo., which borders Ferguson, the school district bought tickets and offered them at a discounted $2 to parents and families.

Mario Charles, the Ferguson-Florissant teacher who led the class in the project, said the virtual town hall was a departure from how schools traditionally engaged their students in celebrating the holiday and the legacy of the civil rights leader.

He thinks this is a step in the right direction. While there were fewer cases of overt discrimination, the problem still continued, he said. And this generation of students, he said, was taking an active role in trying to address residual inequalities.

“As far as police brutality, that remains; as far as economic equality between our communities, that still remains,” he said. “So there is still a lot of resonance to the situation in Ferguson.”

Qiana Spellman, a guidance counselor at Brooklyn Preparatory Academy, said she jumped at the opportunity to have her students participate in the town hall. Some students at the school had been active in the “Black Lives Matter” protests in New York City, she said.

The topic also dovetailed with themes they had been exploring in school, particularly about leadership in the current demonstrations, Spellman said. Unlike the civil rights era when King was the heralded leader, the students today believe that they are all leaders in the movement.

“Each one of them has a voice, and by bringing all of these voices together ... it makes them feel like they can really make difference,” she said.

Image source: Rochester City School District

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.