PORTLAND, Maine — Layered into the din of voices in the Ocean Avenue Elementary School Monday afternoon were words like “hope,” “dream,” “peace” and “courage.”
Nearly 200 people, mostly children and their parents, turned out for the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the school, a program centered around the children’s book “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” After a staged reading of the book by volunteer actors, students in attendance who had been using the book in recent classroom projects were asked to each speak one of Martin’s “big words,” first softly, then louder and louder.
By the third and final chant, the gymnasium was filled with voices and words like hope and courage piled on top of each other.
The activities at the school also included a West African drum circle and the painting of a “Wall of Dreams” mural to be displayed next month at Portland City Hall. The event rounded up a day of holiday celebration in Maine’s largest and most ethnically diverse city, beginning with the Portland NAACP’s 32nd annual MLK Breakfast.
At Ocean Avenue Elementary School, organizers said the famed civil rights activist resonates today with kids in multiple ways.
Catherine Anderson, who co-chairs the school Parent Teacher Organization’s new Cross Cultural Committee alongside Erica King, pointed out that while today’s youths didn’t live through King’s 1960s civil rights movement, many Portland children immigrated to the city from African nations where violent oppression is still widespread.
So the idea of standing up for civil rights in the face of physical danger, as King did, isn’t just theoretical for many of the school’s children.
But perhaps as important as the notion of standing up for civil rights, she said, is the lesson of how he did so.
“[Dr. King was] peaceful, and he was able to use words to bring people together — it wasn’t through fists, and that’s always a great message for kids regardless of [the conflict] they’re trying to solve,” Anderson said.
Erica King said Martin Luther King Jr. Day events like the one at the school help open up a dialogue about race in society today, and remind people that racism has not been eliminated from this country.
“While we may not have segregation legislated, we still have not completely healed race in this country,” she said.
The school’s PTO purchased copies of “Martin’s Big Words” to be distributed to classrooms, and gave out free copies to the first 75 attendees to arrive at Monday afternoon’s event.
Pious Ali, founder of the Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, helped organize the staged reading of the book, asking young people he works with through the NAACP’s King Fellows youth group to volunteer for the event.
Ali’s King Fellows had been leading a series of community discussions in recent weeks with Portland students on the topics of race, poverty and homelessness.
He said the art, music and staged reading Monday provided the young children on hand with Dr. King’s message in “media that this generation understands.”
“Dr. King died young at the age of 39, but if you look back at his life, he was showing signs of leadership from a very young age,” said Ali. “[Youths can learn] that you can be a leader at a young age. Age isn’t a problem for leadership. Serving your community is a kind of leadership.”