WALLA WALLA — From an Alabama jail cell in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an open letter to his critics defending his call to action through peaceful protest and civil disobedience in a town not his own.
The letter, recalled historically as the Letter from Birmingham Jail, includes the passage “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Walla Walla High School students were challenged this week to analyze King’s words, and draw potential parallels to current societal struggles, as part of the Whitman Teaches the Movement outreach program.
Whitman Teaches the Movement is presented in partnership with Walla Walla Public Schools, and as part of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project. The nonprofit civil rights group began the outreach project after conducting a national study that gave most U.S. states a failing grade when it comes to state standards on civil rights education, explained Sophie Schouboe, a sophomore at Whitman and project manager of Whitman Teaches the Movement.
“They had certain criteria that they thought would give a good overview of the civil rights movement,” Schouboe said about the initial study. “About two-thirds of the states failed, including the entire West Coast.”
Locally, the effort looks to enrich Walla Walla’s public school students with additional civil rights era lessons, while offering Whitman students the opportunity to teach and serve. The program relies on student volunteers, and is part of the college’s Student Engagement Center. The college students train on curriculum specific to second-, fifth-, seventh- and 11th-grade classrooms.
The program launched Jan. 22 this year, near the federal holiday in honor of King. In all, 55 Whitman students were to visit 42 classrooms this week and last, with some students working as teams. Classroom lessons conclude today.
Schouboe, who taught in classrooms last year, coordinated the program this year as a student intern and also taught. She presented to fifth-graders at Sharpstein Elementary on baseball legend Jackie Robinson, the core fifth-grade curriculum.
“I think it’s a great program because it addresses something that a lot of people don’t get a lot of extensive education on in school,” she said.
“I think it’s also a great way for our students who are interested in education to get experience in the classroom, and get outside the Whitman bubble and get connected to everything else going on in Walla Walla. That was nice for me … to go in and work with the kids. After planning everything and putting it together it was great to see it in action,” Schouboe said.
Wa-Hi social studies teacher Michelle Higgins was so impressed with the Whitman Teaches the Movement project last year, she asked Whitman students to visit her ninth-grade Northwest history classes this year.
Higgins said although civil rights curriculum comes later in high school, it is part of the new common core standards being adopted in the state.
“This is challenging,” Higgins said about studying King’s writings. “But this is an example of one of those texts ninth- and 10th-graders will be encountering.”
Whitman students Tim Reed, Rose Gottlieb and Molly Emmett were in Higgins’ class Monday to talk with the freshman class and read excerpts of King’s writings, including the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
The Wa-Hi students offered their own thoughts and knowledge on King, and civil rights, before breaking up into small groups.
One student volunteered that King spoke against having people separated because of their race.
“Do you know what the term is for keeping black people and white people separate?” Emmett asked, writing down terms on a whiteboard. “Do you know segregation?”
Along with segregation, the class was introduced to the idea of civil disobedience, which King defended and carried out — the belief that laws can be broken if they seem morally wrong.
“What he was really against was racial discrimination,” Gottlieb said, carrying on the discussion of segregation.
Students learned about Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham in 1963, when protests were coordinated in the heavily segregated city. Connor is remembered for authorizing the use of high pressure water hoses and attack dogs on peaceful protesters, including children.
The Wa-Hi students admitted they were learning many of the facts and concepts for the first time.
“I think it’s interesting,” Jasmin Martinez said. “It shows how different things are now. Different cultures can mix now.”
While the class read through a print-out of King’s writings, the Whitman students and Higgins walked between groups, asking questions and drawing out ideas.
“Have you guys ever felt that way in your lives, where you’re waiting and waiting for something to change that’s just not fair?” Emmett asked one group.
“No,” Martinez answered. “Not yet.”
The talk led to King’s decision to get himself arrested in Birmingham.
“They should have had more rights, but they didn’t,” Emmett said. “People were saying, why did you go to jail, and he said I didn’t want to wait anymore.”