By Maddie Aitken ’19
On Monday, January 21, the entire Gunnery community participated in various activities on- and off-campus to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. On-campus activities included writing to legislators, watching the movie 13th, and making cards for children in need. Students who went off campus participated in programs like collecting items for a local shelter and working on a mural at Judy Black Memorial Park and Gardens in the Depot as part of Washington Gives.
Washington Gives is a day of service organized by the town of Washington, Conn, that aims to honor MLK’s life. The idea of Washington Gives is to “empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a ‘Beloved Community’.” Many local businesses and non-profit groups, as well as schools and individuals, participated in Washington Gives, The Gunnery included.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta. He entered Morehouse College at age 15, having skipped ninth and eleventh grades. He was raised by parents who shared the desires and wishes he would later fight for. His father was a pastor who fought against racial prejudice “not just because his race suffered, but because he considered racism and segregation to be an affront to God’s will.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 along with other ministers and civil rights activists to “harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches.” The SCLC held non-violent protests to promote civil rights reform and worked to enfranchise black voters in a variety of ways. The SCLC also give King a base of operation through the South and allowed him to gain fame and recognition on a national platform.
King played a central role in the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which were significant for the advancement of desegregation and racial equality.
He wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963, an open letter that defends nonviolent resistance to racism and says all people have moral responsibilities to take action against unjust laws. In this widely published letter, he wrote the famous line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In August 1963, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to more than 250,000 civil rights supporters taking part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This speech, which called for civil and economic rights and an end to segregation and racism in America, became a defining moment of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
MLK was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963, and in 1964, he won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his dynamic leadership of the Civil Rights movement and steadfast commitment to achieving racial justice through nonviolent action.” Four years later, in 1968, he was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tenn.
For the past few years, The Gunnery has designated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a Day of Service. This year The Gunnery partnered with Washington Gives as well as organized on-campus activities. This has been the tradition of recent years, and it is viewed by faculty and students alike as an opportunity to come together and give back to various communities in a variety of ways.
Despite MLK Day being a celebrated day across America and at The Gunnery, neither used to be the case. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill creating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday to celebrate MLK’s life’s work. The holiday was first celebrated in 1986, but wasn’t recognized immediately recognized in all 50 states. Connecticut was among the states that didn’t initially accept the day as a holiday – it wasn’t celebrated here until 2000.
And at The Gunnery, designating MLK Day as a schoolwide Day of Service is a recent development. In an issue of The Highlander from February 1994, an article titled “Why all the Talk about Martin Luther King Jr. Day?” was published. The writer, John A. Kaloidis ‘95, described the controversy surrounding the celebration of MLK Day at The Gunnery, and said, “I feel that The Gunnery has the right not to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, just as they don’t celebrate other national holiday. However, I do feel that the school has that obligation as a learning institution to do so.”
Another student, Roni Shasho ‘94, provided a second opinion in the same article. He noted a USA Today episode from January 17, 1993 that included an interview with Senator Harris Wofford, an aide to Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK. In the episode, Wofford “was asked about what King would say to the holiday. ‘He would be angry if he found out that this holiday, the holiday in his memory, was a day off instead of a day on. A day of reaction instead of a day of action. A day of just talk and no deeds.’”
In 2004, The Gunnery hosted Wilfred Rembert, a black artist who was active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, for MLK Day. Kevin Lind ‘04 reflected on hearing Rembert and celebrating MLK Day in an article titled “A Story To Remember,” published in an issue of The Highlander from January 28, 2004. “Martin Luther King Day usually comes and goes on this campus without much attention paid to it. We never have the opportunity to give the day away, and I don’t remember if we ever before had a performance like we did last monday in its honor. It was nice to finally recognize such a symbolic day in our nation’s history but what really made it nice for me, significantly more than anything else, was Winfred Rembert.”
According to Lind, 2004 was the first time The Gunnery truly commemorated MLK Day with special programming. However, it was still “a day of just talk and no deeds.” Since then, MLK Day at The Gunnery has evolved into a dedicated day of service, something, in Wofford’s opinion, MLK would be proud of.