The musical cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rang through the gymnasium at Horizon Community Middle School on Feb. 1.
The Civil Rights leaders spoke of doubt, confusion and uncertainty. In his characteristically inspiring, passionate and impelling fashion, he recounted the struggle of facing his own demons, of overcoming overwhelming odds to find a path forward. He spoke of yielding to a calling to fight for justice, equality and fundamental social change, a calling spelled out to him by a higher power.
The dozens of seventh graders assembled on the bleachers responded with rapt attention and awed silence. The clip of King that sang through the speakers was recorded more than 50 years ago, but it landed with an impact that felt immediate, immersive and all too contemporary. On the first day of Black History Month, every student at Horizon had the chance to fully immerse themselves in a critically important story.
That was the whole point of "At the Table With Dr. King," a performance that combined live music, pre-recorded audio and video clips and short lectures to explore the life, legacy and mission of Dr. Martin Luther King. The musicians and lecturers offered three performances throughout the day on Feb. 1 for all of the students at Horizon; every performance included a guest appearance by Horizon eighth-grader Jakye Nunley, who offered a tribute to Dr. King in the form of an original spoken word/rap piece.
It was all designed to immerse students in the Dr. King's message and offer lessons about the history and context behind his work. Indeed, organizers wanted to make history come alive through Dr. King's speeches and sermons; they wanted to create an experience that involved the crowd in a visceral way. Incorporating music was an ideal way to achieve that goal.
"We learn our alphabet through music; savvy teachers use music to teach important concepts. The Civil Rights movement was full of music," said Dave LeMieux, creative director of the event. "We felt it was integral in telling the story of the movement to use music not only to drive home concepts, but also to represent it accurately. It was saturated with the music of the people."
The live band accompanied recordings in real time, and the presentation included information about some of the most important facets of the Civil Rights movement – on screens arrayed behind the band, images of Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and many others beamed.
Dr. King's words served as a through line for all of this information. In addition to revisiting some of Dr. King's most celebrated speeches, the presentation delved into some lesser-known works, including a sermon that gave the performance its title. Dr. King's "Knock at Midnight" speech saw the Civil Rights leader spelling out his own struggles with doubt and indecision; he recounts struggling through the effects of the organized pushback, the hatred and the bigotry and finding the inspiration to fight for basic human rights. According to LeMiux, the speech offered a fitting introduction to a program celebrating an extraordinary life and a critically important movement.
"I think the speech articulates very well that he was called to service. Like all of us, he had a choice to walk along the path of his calling with the help of other people," said LeMieux, who also plays keyboard and sings as part of the program's live band. "In putting together this program, we were looking for things that people hadn't seen before, including the teachers.
"We found things that were very unique that would help us tell the story of the call on Dr. King's life. A lot of people know the 'I Have a Dream' speech; some may even have it memorized," he added. "A lot of people know the 'Mountaintop' speech, his last speech. Few people have heard his 'Knock at Midnight' speech, which is what our program is based on."
Delving into the breadth of Dr. King's words and accomplishments had an obvious impact on Jakye Nunley, the eighth-grader who paid tribute to the seminal Letter from Birmingham Jail in his original rap with lines like, "Even locked up/he wrote with a King's pen."
"I wanted to get the point across that Dr. King was a great man," Nunley said. "He is a very big inspiration of mine; everybody has the power of words, and people fail to realize how powerful they are. You can say so much to somebody and have an effect."
Combining powerful words with equally powerful music is an ideal means of conveying the messages of history to middle school students, Nunley added.
"We live in a musical generation," he said. "Our brains are growing, and right now is the perfect time for us to learn this information and spread the word … Music is the best way to connect anybody."
For the student body at Horizon, a school that boasts more than 30 languages spoken and a beautifully diverse array of backgrounds and stories, Dr. King's message of inclusion, equality and action is critical, said Principal Ron Garcia y Ortiz.
"Our diversity is our strength, and we believe that it's important for our students to engage in activities and opportunities that speak to connecting to community," Garcia y Ortiz said. "This was an opportunity to build community not only around a great man, but a great movement."