Third and 4th graders, wearing black berets and carrying their school banner, led the procession up Claiborne Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward. Next came the band—mostly 7th graders—clad in red jackets and white gloves. Sequined baton twirlers and dancers high-stepped behind the band’s drummers, while cheerleaders chanted and shook red, green, and black pompons.
And at the rear of this pack of students from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology was a trio of 3rd graders, clutching a banner that bore the visage of the civil rights leader and their message for why they were marching on a raw, blustery Saturday afternoon in January:
“3rd Grade … Still Dreaming
2 bedroom house = $1,300 a month
Gasoline = $3 a gallon
No Segregation, Equal Rights, Voting, Jobs for All = Priceless”
Two days before the federal holiday recognizing Martin Luther King Jr., the students and staff members at his namesake public school in the Lower Ninth Ward here staged a scaled-down version of what has been one of their traditional events to honor the slain civil rights leader. Student musicians and dancers from three other schools around the city—St. Augustine High School, Sarah T. Reed High, and Lafayette Academy Charter—joined King’s students for the two-hour event on one of the coldest days in New Orleans in recent memory.
It was the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck that the King school had been able to host the parade through the streets that surround the campus. The 500 students at King—the first public school to open in the neighborhood since the storm—had already spent the days before the march discussing King’s legacy and writing essays about what he meant to them.
“We have to act like Martin Luther King,” said Terry Johnson, a 7th grader who played the trumpet in the parade. “He led marches, so we are leading a march, too.”
As the parade moved past boarded-up stores and half-collapsed houses along Claiborne Avenue—a major thoroughfare—it was impossible to miss the poignancy of young, African-American students marching in the civil rights leader’s honor through what had been one of New Orleans’ most vibrant black communities before Katrina. The neighborhood was one of the hardest hit by the storm and has been one of the slowest to recover.
Chill Wind, Warm Reception
When the procession reached Tupelo Street, where piles of debris and contractors’ trucks signal varying stages of reconstruction, the drums and horns from King’s band and the powerful playing of the St. Augustine Marching 100 lured residents outside.
“Thank you for marching!” one elderly man, bundled up against the wind, called out to King’s band.
The marchers looped around to Caffin Avenue to make their way back to the King campus, with each band seeming to play louder as they passed Fats Domino’s modest home, with its signature white bricks, yellow paint, and the letters “FD” mounted over the front door.
At the end, hands numb from playing his baritone in the sharp wind, 12-year-old Ryan Ellison reflected on what it means to go to a school named for Martin Luther King.
“It’s an honor,” said the 7th grader. “He was a good man. He stood for justice and what’s right for all people.”
Doris R. Hicks, the principal at King, said hosting the parade—even though several schools had backed out at the last minute because of the weather—felt like another step toward bringing back the Lower Ninth Ward.
“A little parade, but a powerful message,” she said.
And on Monday, King’s students would take their message across the Mississippi River to Jefferson Parish for another event honoring the civil rights leader. To get there, the King kids would pile onto buses to cross the Crescent City Connection, the same bridge where a large group of mostly black New Orleanians, trying to flee the chaos at the city’s convention center after Katrina, were turned back by police.
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.