MLK Day Inspiration

Click on the cover to preview at TpT!I’ve been fortunate to have forged a lasting relationship with Scholastic publishers, particularly the wonderful editors at Storyworks and Scope magazines. Through my work with them I’ve developed a reputation for writing compelling reader’s theater about Martin Luther King and African-American history in general. Somehow, I’ve been able to accurately represent the historical events and, more importantly, convey the spirit of Dr. King’s work through such plays as “Sitting Down for Dr. King.” With MLK Day upon us, and given that February is Black History Month, I want to encourage you to give some of my reader’s theater scripts a try.

I’m particularly proud of “Sitting Down.” I remember struggling over it when I was writing it back in 2002.There I was, bouncing one bad idea after another off my laptop screen, regretting having accepted the contract at all, when I realized how very simple my task was in comparison to the mammoth challenge undertaken by Dr. King. Soon thereafter I crafted the fictional story of “David,” a twelve-year-old white kid frustrated that these African-American college students were getting in the way of his birthday shortcake at the Woolworths. “Sitting Down” has since appeared in three different Scholastic venues including Storyworks, a text book series, and a leveled reading set, but I’m proud of it because it has a powerful ending that I believe Dr. King would have respected.

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!I think my play, “Gonna Let it Shine” also conveys the spirit of Dr. King’s work. It’s based upon the true story of Sheyann Webb, who was just eight years old when she braved tear gas and posse men while marching alongside Dr. King. She became known as “Dr. King’s Youngest Freedom Fighter,” and her story is the subject of the Disney movie, “Selma, Lord, Selma.” The play originally appeared in Storyworks under the title “Pigtails & Protests.” In the process of re-writing it for release on TeachersPayTeachers, I had the privilege to talk with Sheyann herself, who is today–some fifty years later–a public speaker and Civil Rights advocate. It was surreal to speak with someone who in my writing was still just a child. It was inspiring to connect with someone who not only knew Dr. King and numerous other heroes of the Movement, but was in fact a Civil Rights hero in her own right.

We Shall Overcome” tells the story of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. That’s the event where students, some nearly young as Sheyann, were attacked by police dogs and knocked to the ground by blasts from fire hoses. News coverage of their sacrifice swayed worldwide public opinion in favor of desegregation.

The Girl Who Got Arrested,” meanwhile, tells the true story of Claudette Colvin, the first person to be hauled off a city bus and tried in court for defying Montgomery’s segregated busing law. Her story is depicted in the book, “Twice Toward Justice.” I certainly don’t want to diminish the work of Rosa Parks, but in my humble opinion, Claudette’s story is far more compelling.

One of my “under sung” plays is “MLK’s Freedom March.” It’s a work of historical fiction about a girl named Lucy who helps her ailing grandmother get to Washington to hear MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There’s also “In the Jailhouse with Dr. King,” about a troubled teenage who turns it around when he witnesses King’s calm demeanor in the face of violence during the Bus Boycott. These and other plays capture the essence of MLK’s work. Consider celebrating MLK Day and/or Black History Month in your classroom by picking any three, dividing your class into three groups, practicing for a couple weeks, and then presenting them with opportunity for discussion in between. In so doing, you’ll be giving your students a strong foundation in MLK history, and perhaps the inspiration to make history themselves.

Happy Directing!

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Selma Movie, Selma Play

Selma, Oprah Winfrey's new movie about MLKBuzz about Oprah Winfrey’s new movie Selma is shining a light on the Selma to Montgomery March. The film, which depicts the 1965 events in Alabama, drew standing ovations at its screening in New York. Says film critic Roger Friedman, “Watching ‘Selma’ you really feel like all the plays, movies, TV shows, songs– every theater piece about King– all of it culminates in this film.” (Click here to see the trailer.)

Selma was the site of protests over voting rights. African-Americans there and in neighboring counties were routinely denied the right to vote through the use of poll taxes, threats of retribution, proficiency tests, and other manipulations. Today, that all sounds pretty vanilla, but make no mistake, Selma was a terrifyingly murderous place.

Dr. King, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and other civil rights leaders organized a march to the state capital where they hoped to confront then-Governor George Wallace. But when the marchers arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of town, state troopers—including many on horseback—violently attacked the marchers with clubs and tear gas. It became known as Bloody Sunday. International news coverage of the violence led directly to the signing of the Voting Rights Act, a turning point in the civil rights struggle.Click on the cover to preview or purchase

The movie’s release date (Christmas Day) is timed to take advantage of the annual focus on MLK Day in January and Black History Month in February. But this is an important bit of history regardless of one’s race. We live in an era of voter apathy, a time when we tend to take our right to vote for granted. If our students have any hope of changing the world, one would think they’ll need to reclaim the voting booth. Our kids need to know this story both for what it means to America’s history and for what it means for America’s future. “There’s a lump in your throat at the end of ‘Selma,’” says Friedman. Kids need to experience that lump in the throat.

I don’t know what the movie will be rated, but due to its mature content, I doubt any of us will ever be able to share it in our elementary or middle school classrooms. But you can take advantage of the interest in the film by using the read aloud play, Gonna Let it Shine. It depicts the Selma campaign from the perspective of Sheyann Webb, who was eight at the time. Sheyann, along with her friend Rachel West, became known as “Dr. King’s youngest freedom fighters.” Sheyann was there at the rallies, at the funerals, and on the bridge. She experienced the sting of teargas. She ran from Sheriff Clark’s posse. Her story is a great way to introduce students to the civil rights struggle and to help them appreciate their future voting rights.

The play is available at TeachersPayTeachers and ReadAloudPlays.com. Happy directing!