More than 300 students from Emerson School took to the streets Tuesday morning to participate in an annual march honoring the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., born Jan. 15, 1929.
Carrying signs reading “Free at last” and “Equal rights for all,” students walked from the school at 2800 Forest Ave. down to College Avenue and back to the school yard, where they joined hands in a large circle and sang the signature civil rights song: “We Shall Overcome.”
“Martin Luther King would be very proud of us if he saw us today,” said Raja Sutherland, a fifth-grader at Emerson, discussing the multi-racial group of students who came together to honor his legacy. “His dream has come true, essentially.”
“I think if it wasn’t for Dr. King, I couldn’t be friends with African-Americans,” added Chandler Williams, a white fifth-grader, hailing the effects of the desegregation movement when King had much of his momentum.
The Emerson march is an annual event that stretches back at least 10 years, said Jamie Carlson, who organized the walk and teaches first grade.
In the days leading up to the event, teachers and students focused on King in the classroom. Pupils read poetry about civil rights, wrote essays about their hopes for a peaceful future and prepared for an assembly, to take place Friday, that will feature student readings from King’s speeches.
Carlson said that, when she played a few of King’s speeches for her students, she was impressed with their reaction. “When we play Dr. King’s speeches, even on CD, it’s remarkable to see the effect,” she said, recalling how quiet her pupils were when the compact disc played.
Susan Hodge, a second grade teacher at Emerson, said that instructors have attempted to make King’s teachings relevant to students’ lives.
“We try to personalize it and make it an everyday way of being,” she said. Hodge said she taught her students to treat their classmates, and those they do not know so well, with respect.
She said the celebration was particularly meaningful this year given the events of Sept. 11. “That was very scary and fragmenting to them,” she said. “Whenever we do these things, it helps bring them back together and lets them know there’s hope.”
Students said King’s message applies in today’s world. “We should have peace in the world,” said Michelle Jones, a fifth grader.
Dori Schmidt, parent of an Emerson student, and co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association, said she was very pleased with the event.
“I love this community, and I like for the community outside the school to see how we’re living the dream,” she said, discussing a spirit of multi-racial cooperation at Emerson. “I grew up in southern California in lilly-white schools, and this has been a wonderful education for me.”
But, Schmidt said that there is room for growth. While children cross racial lines to work and play together at school, she said, play dates outside of school tend to be less diverse.
Lori Perenon, an African-American fourth grade teacher at Emerson, said the school tries to integrate themes of respect and tolerance throughout the year, not just around Martin Luther King’s birthday.
“It’s not, we’re going to celebrate this today, and forget about it tomorrow,” she said, “There has to be some consistency.”
Perenon said lessons about Cesar Chavez, the Latino labor leader, and readings from the poetry of Langston Hughes, an African-American author, are just a couple of examples from a year-round curriculum that focuses on the issues raised by King.
Students said they hope to pursue the civil rights leader’s vision. “There is still a lot of racism in the world,” said Sutherland. “Everyone should be seen as equal.”
Berkeley schools will be closed Monday to honor King’s birthday.