• Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Lawrentians Reflect on the Life and Legacy of MLK

Lawrentians explored the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, through a religious gathering, a talk framing King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a panel discussion with local civic and nonprofit leaders, and a community art project.

A number of Lawrentians said an important lesson they took away from the programming was the idea of interconnectedness. After attending the Hallelujah! Service at Edith Memorial Chapel on Sunday, Bradley Barret ’23 recalled King’s quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Bradley related this to his Lawrenceville experience, stating that while the School community has its differences, “Through recognition and constant communication of the goal of the school, Lawrenceville ensures that we as students come together and settle our differences for a common greater good, hence the phrase ‘Best for All.’”

He used the COVID-19 pandemic as a current manifestation of an “inescapable network,” stating that the precautions one person takes to prevent spreading the disease can keep the entire school safe. “If we, as Lawrentians are able to strive and prosper together through tumultuous times such as now, I have no doubt in my mind that everyone who steps foot [on our campus] is being prepared to become a better person, with a deep concern for their fellow citizens,” he said.

In his all-School keynote address on Jan. 18, Zaheer Ali, executive director of the Hutchins Institute for Social Justice, framed King’s “Letter” in both historic and modern contexts.  “I invite you into a conversation with this framing as a provocation, an inspiration, and for some, an aspiration to be a co-worker for progress,” he said. “[The ‘Letter’] challenges us to consider how much of today’s reform-minded language and advocacy is rooted in King, and how much skews closer to his opponents,” Ali said.

Lawrentians Reflect on the Life and Legacy of MLK  Zaheer Ali, executive director Hutchins Institute for Social Justice

Andrew Boanoh ’23 was especially interested in what Ali called “historical ventriloquism,” attempts made by others to authoritatively predict what King may or may not have said about contemporary events.

“Especially with the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in 2020, people on both sides of the political aisle often attempted to use King's words to bolster their own ideals and motives,” said Boanoh. “While in some ways such leaning on the past is helpful, I think that it sets a dangerous precedent to assume the opinions of Dr. King, or any of his contemporaries, on modern matters. Instead, we should focus on allowing the essence of his message - the idea that it's our moral obligation to stand up for what's right - to inform our actions towards injustice.”

Through Ali’s presentation, Third Former Liza Strong said she learned about King’s approach to progress.  “[Ali’s talk] resonated with me the most because he spoke so eloquently about Dr. King's work, and even though we were on Zoom, he made the discussion engaging.”

Kyle Park ’23 was inspired by the Jan. 19 zoom panel discussion led by Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement Cameron Brickhouse. Calvin King (Director of Residential and Student Life, Christina Seix Academy), Robt Seda-Schreiber (Chief Activist, Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice), and Natalie Tung ’14 (Co-Founder and Executive Director, HomeWorks Trenton) talked about the ways they translate the themes King’s “Letter” into practice. 

Lawrentians Reflect on the Life and Legacy of MLK

Seda-Schreiber said that King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an “invitation” to service. “There is no one who can’t be a changemaker. When you raise your voice, on your own behest or for someone else, it’s unbelievable what can occur from just that small bit of action. . . Every small, incremental part you weave into the tapestry makes an extraordinary difference.” That idea, Park said, “provided [me] with a new perspective regarding engagement with social justice.” He was “encouraged to think about the action I can take as a high school student to make an impact in the School community and beyond. The panelists were passionate activists with different backgrounds and it was inspiring to hear about their experiences and work.”

Fourth Former Eric Frankel was similarly motivated. “Coming away from this year's MLK day I'm left with one quote by the panel, ‘Every piece of progress, no matter how minute, is a step towards justice.’ Doing this work is exhausting, requires tireless effort, and in the shuffle of it all, it can be quite easy to lose sight of what 'change' is and how we get there. Being affirmed that anything from bringing up a friend's insensitive language, to marching for police reform adds some grain of sand to tipping our world to equity left me with a renewed energy and motivation. Sometimes the act of being told that what you're doing is helping makes everything clear again.”

Lawrentians Reflect on the Life and Legacy of MLK

The commemoration concluded as students gathered in small groups to discuss what they learned and create a School-wide art project (directed by Artist-in-Residence Stuart Robertson ’11), which will be displayed at locations throughout campus. “The activity that resonated most with me was the discussion questions students pondered within our Big Red Conversation groups. While the keynote presentation and panel discussion provided informative material to further cultivate our own opinions and perspectives, I am a firm believer that social change must begin with the people. Therefore, the discussions we participated in seemed to carry the most importance and significance,” said Dylan Pinkins ‘22. “Within these groups, I was able to hear and understand perspectives, feelings and moral beliefs different from my own. We were able to express ourselves freely in an attempt to facilitate a greater understanding of each other as a collective. This method of attempting to understand one another is how I personally believe significant social change will occur.”

Lawrentians Reflect on the Life and Legacy of MLK

Lawrenceville’s MLK commemoration “completely changed how I view MLK Day as we conversed about real life situations and discussed ways students have seen justice at our school or in their communities,” said Alexis Gonzalez ’23.

Park concurred, stating, “I believe the fruitful discussions from the past few days have established a foundation for the school community to continue developing an environment where students feel accepted and respected.”

Boanoh added, “I believe it is critical that Lawrenceville takes a full day to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King. While the work he began certainly moved the nation in the direction of complete social unity, there’s still much more to be done if we are to rid ourselves of social injustice, and I think MLK Day reminds of that each year.”

For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard Hanson, director of Public Relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.