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How Not to Honor Martin Luther King

Published in ChicagoNow, January 18, 2016

At a grade school assembly to honor Martin Luther King, a child from a self-contained class for children on the autistic spectrum sat in the back of the room with his aide. He had no role in this assembly. He didn’t get to shake an instrument to accompany a song his grade sang. He didn’t get to create or hold up a sign with words to mark the occasion. Words like: Justice. Equality. Respect. Brotherhood. Dream.

Another child was allowed to make and display a sign. He is included in a general education classroom but has severe dyslexia. But no one helped him with the sign and he knew the words were misspelled. When it was his turn, he cried in shame. He knew he had not spelled “justice” correctly.

There is no school today to honor Martin Luther King’s birthday, which was actually this past Friday. But our schools always celebrate it on a Monday by not having school so stores can run special sales. Thus, I assumed the assemblies held on Friday at most schools were to honor Dr. King and his values, beliefs, and accomplishments.

I naively believed that an assembly honoring Dr. King would find a way to honor, respect, and include everyone. Isn’t that the take away message for the children? But singing “We Shall Overcome” and holding up signs while excluding children with special needs gives children at best a very mixed message.

I’m sure there were reasons for these exclusions. The children from the special education class need to sit in the back for ease of removal, or not come at all if they are likely to misbehave. After all, we can’t let them disrupt the assembly. Or maybe we can.

Broadway actor Kelvin Moon Loh wrote a letter to the mother who brought her autistic child to a performance of The King and I. After sitting through over two hours of the play, the child became upset and the mother tried her best to leave, to a chorus of shushes, condemning remarks, and boos from the audience.

In his letter, Loh stated,

“…when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others? … Yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again … theater is created for all people.”

The elementary school assembly was not a Broadway show for which audience members paid big bucks. It was an opportunity for learning. So why not anticipate a child with severe dyslexia could not spell the words correctly and ask a buddy to help him so he can hold up his sign with pride? Why not give the children with autism a seat in the audience? Why not acknowledge that loud performances are difficult for some kids, so we will sing softly and play quiet instruments? If a child becomes upset and has to leave, why not say we are glad she could be here for part of the time instead of pretending it didn’t happen? In fact, why not seat each child from the special education class with a peer buddy from a general education class?

Sadly, the adults running this show missed the real teachable moment. Dr. King called for “creative altruism” and learning to live together as brothers and sisters. His dream for his own children was that they be judged by the content of their character. He tells us silence is worse than cruel words spoken by our enemies. How ironic that an assembly in his honor would not be inclusive of every child, regardless of ability.

Here are my two Dr. King signs to hold up today:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“A right delayed is a right denied.”

It is time to rethink how we teach our children about the message of Martin Luther King. Speeches and songs and signs are cheap. Actions speak volumes. For our children with special needs, it’s time to walk the walk.


by Laurie Levy
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