Middle and high school students in Whitewater heard a special presentation on nonviolence in an event celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
April 4 will mark 50 years since the civil rights leader’s assassination.
On Monday morning, speaking first at the middle school and then at the high school, was Marc Perry, director of community programs at Community Action Inc., which is a not-for-profit organization that offers programs to fight poverty in Rock and Walworth Counties.
Perry’s remarks focused on teaching students about King’s nonviolence principals to make a difference in the schools and community at large.
At the Whitewater High School, principal Mike Lovenberg made introductory comments before introducing both Perry and senior Ben Klaskey, who spoke on behalf of the high school’s student organization Project Unity.
“The question is why we are here?” Lovenberg asked the assembled student body and other guests. “Today marks the birthday of one of the most influential figures in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The holiday celebrates the legacy of a man who brought hope and healing to America. We commemorate him by living through his examples; we must demonstrate the values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility and service, all that so radiantly defined Dr. King’s character and empowered his leadership.”
Klaskey spoke next.
“Today is a day about unity, celebrating a man who had a dream, a dream of a better tomorrow,” Klaskey began. “The speech he gave on August 28, 1963 will stand the test of time itself. On this special day centered around the idea of acceptance, it may seem just about race, about white and black people coming together. I believe it is much more than that. The message to our community that MLK Day is about diversity and the acceptance of all people, from any sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or anything else you can name. As Lao-tzu once said, ` the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,’ and this day is one step in the right direction.’ This day is a great opportunity to make a difference, to make the world a better place.”
He then reminded the students in the audience that Project Unity meets every Tuesday morning.
During his presentation, Perry utilized a combination of modern-day videos and photographs from King’s life and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
“I want to thank you on this day of service in recognition of a prophet, hero, theologian, scholar, activist for social justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he began. “Had he not been taking from us all too soon, I firmly believe he would be celebrating his 89th birthday with us, instead of us honoring him posthumously today.”
Perry then on a video played for the audience — the Coca-Cola “American is Beautiful” commercial that first aired during the 2014 Superbowl — noting how it depicted much of what King had hoped the future would bring.
“The video I shared with you I did not share with you because I do not want you to go buy Coke products,” he said. “I shared it because it my mind, it my mind it captured Dr. King’s vision of America, a country that recognizes, celebrates and embraces difference, while at the same time highlights the American spirit that binds us all together. Unfortunately, we all too often use difference as a way to diminish, belittle or even harm others. We have a great deal of work to do before we become anywhere near what Dr. King envisioned.”
Perry then briefly recalled much of King’s life, particularly the hardships, often violent hardships, he faced while fighting for equality.
“He was a fighter, make no mistake about that,” Perry said. “But instead of his fists, he used his words, his deeds, activism and civil disobedience to battle oppression. He ought every day of his life, up until the moment that he died. I believe if he had not died on that evening in 1968, even at the age of 89, he would be somewhere in the world fight for the rights of others.”
Perry then reviewed the six principals of nonviolence for the students, which are outlined in King’s book “Stride Toward Freedom.” Those principals are:
• “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is being emotionally mature and secure in one’s personhood to see another way.”
“You need too have the courage to step up,” Perry said. “None of us want to be alienated or ostracized. We need to step up and seek the truth. When you see injustice, you speak out about it. Dr. King encouraged everyone to use their voice to fight against injustice.”
• “Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of a diverse and strong community.”
“It always amazed me that Dr. King always found a way to forgive his enemies,” Perry said. “People who threatened his life, people who threaten his children’s lives, people threatened his wife’s life, people who fire-bombed his house. He saw evil in no one, and he believed if you practiced nonviolence, you created something he called the beloved community.”
• “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil, not people.”
“Nonviolence also recognizes that evil-doers are also victims, and that they are not evil people,” Perry explained. “He sought to change people’s minds and people’s hearts, to get them to see the world in a different perspective. To get them to see, that, if everyone had access to opportunity, we would all prosper.”
• “Nonviolence holds that struggle can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts struggle without physical retaliation.”
“He believed that by allowing oppressed people to tell their stories, they could give voice to what was going on, that that would change the hearts and minds of others,” Perry continued.
• “Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists emotional violence as well as physical.”
“Dr. King inspired millions of people in this country and throughout the world to stand up and hold hands, to connect with each other, and to let go of fear and turn a stranger into a friend to find common goals and common purpose,” Perry said.
• “Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister holds an overall belief that justice will eventually win because good is stronger than hatred.”
“Dr. King firmly believed that if the truth came out, people would see right from wrong,” Perry said. “He believed that justice was blind; that justice did not see race, or ethnicity, or color, or sexual orientation, or sexual identity, or ability. He believed if we tell the truth, then justice will always prevail.”
After the presentation, the students returned to their homerooms and held class discussions on King’s six principles of nonviolence. About 50 Whitewater Unified School District staff members, volunteers from the community and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater personnel helped facilitate those more intimate and detailed discussions between the smaller groups of peers.
Those adult volunteers received training from Dr. Ozalle Toms and Dr. Lauren Smith, both from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, on the best ways to lead those student discussions.
After the ceremony, Lovenberg commented on the importance of students learning about non-violence.
“I think the message of nonviolence is extremely important, especially in this day and age,” he said. “I think going through the philosophy of Dr. King, I think, is a very worthwhile lesson for our students.”
Lovenberg also spoke on the importance of the community members who volunteered to lead those students’ discussions after Perry’s presentation.
Perry also commented on the strength of the adult volunteer turnout at the schools.