Dear Putnam Valley Community:
In thinking about what I wanted to convey to our Putnam Valley community as we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. this year, I recalled the day last spring when Dr. Intrieri and I were in Memphis at an IB (International Baccalaureate) conference. During one afternoon, we visited the Civil Rights Museum a few blocks away, contained within the structure of the original Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated by a gunman who stood at a window of an apartment across the street, still visible to visitors. The museum is alive with memories and displays that recall the kind of blatant, ruthless discrimination that King was battling in 1968. There is a bus that you can enter to hear the driver sending African Americans to the back, and a lunch counter where they couldn’t sit or be served. There are photographs of demonstrations and there is a display of the actual motel room where Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his final speech. He was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers who sought a living wage and reasonable working conditions. They marched carrying signs stating, “I Am a Man,” asking to be treated with dignity after chronically dangerous working conditions and faulty machinery caused a worker to be crushed to death. King’s speech seemed to prefigure his death as he talked about having been to the “mountaintop” and having a vision of the possibilities for a truly free society, where the humanity of all was respected.
Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us of our deep flaws as a society as well as our potential for compassion and goodness. We seem to need those reminders regularly. One hundred years before King, another champion of civil rights who struggled with injustice, Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester, New York for many years. His words prefigure those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message resonates for educators: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Douglass advocated for education of the whole child as a critical factor in changing the culture of slavery that he experienced and sought to overturn. It is moving to note that in his final speech at the Lorraine Hotel, King referred to an incident that had occurred a decade earlier, in 1958: he had been stabbed by a woman who came out of a crowd when he was speaking. The wound was very close to his aorta; he was told that if he had sneezed, he would have died. In his final speech at the Lorraine Hotel, he mentions that when he was recovering from the stab wound he received a letter from a student at White Plains High School, who wrote: “Dear Dr. King, I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School..while it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to you that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
King goes on to talk about all of the efforts he had led and accomplishments that had occurred, because he had not “sneezed,” including the marches in Alabama and Washington and the subsequent Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act of 1964. The young girl who wrote that letter clearly expressed sincere empathy for King and his mission, the kind of connection that establishes our humanity.
We are still seeking to address the need for “building strong children,” and know that much is still lacking in the will and support required to provide equitable opportunities for all children. After 100 years, the champion for the “dream” was Martin Luther King, Jr. The struggle continues, as we continue to look for ways to fulfill the dream of “strong children,” with equal opportunity and “justice for all.”
Dr. Frances Wills
Superintendent of Schools