Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 3
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
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“An American Hero”: Witherspoon Students Celebrate the Legacy of Martin Luther King

Ellen Gilbert

In song, dance, recitations, visual images, instrumental music, and sheer spirit, students at the John Witherspoon Middle School celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. last Thursday morning.

“This historic school in Princeton has been in the forefront of recognizing Dr. King’s birthday,” said Principal William Johnson at the beginning of the assembly. “This is a very serious program about why he is an American hero.”

Images of Oprah Winfrey, Robert F. Kennedy, LeBron James, and Barack Obama were screened in a slide show about people whose accomplishments would not have been possible without Dr. King. The fact that Thursday’s celebration came just days before the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president was referred to more than once. “We celebrate Martin who made it okay for Barack,” Mr. Johnson observed.

The theme of Thursday’s program, “Belief,” was reflected in the recitation of poems like Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” and David E. Talbert’s Obama-inspired work, “Today I Woke Up a Black Man” (“Today I woke up to the reality that everything is possible”). Langston Hughes’s poem, “Let America Be America Again,” about hopefulness among the disenfranchised (“O, yes,/I say it plain,/America never was America to me,/And yet I swear this oath — /America will be!”) reminded the audience that while Mr. Obama’s election is a milestone, it does not mark the end of the struggle for racial equality in America.

A string quintet and two dancers — one in black, the other in white — performed a rendition of “America the Beautiful” for the rapt audience, and a speaking group, under the direction of drama coach Barry Hillman, gave a stirring rendition of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. The audience cheered as children from the Princeton Nursery School, carrying signs with messages like “I Believe,” solemnly marched in and briefly shared the stage with the middle schoolers.

Students from Crossings, a group that works with Princeton University students to examine diversity-related issues, presented a slide-show with images and narrative about their walking tour of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. Community volunteer Shirley Satterfield was present to hear the students acknowledge her part in helping them appreciate the significance of this important part of Princeton’s history. When it was over, Ms. Satterfield described the entire program as “excellent,” and expressed her pleasure in having been invited. “I just hope they carry all of this talent and knowledge with them when they go on to the high school,” said the former Princeton High School guidance counselor.

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