Centered on students and the theme “It Starts with Me,” a tribute to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took place Friday afternoon at Billy Mills Middle School.
Full of tradition, this was the 31st year of the celebration, Principal Andrew Taylor told the crowd. He honored former teacher Betty Norwood, who watched the assembly remotely. Norwood, he said, was instrumental in keeping the annual event alive throughout the decades. English teacher Jill Jevens and the BMMS equity team now coordinate it.
Audrey Pope-Trowbridge delivered a message of inspiration in the building where she learned to make a layup as a South Junior High student. Today, she’s a Free State High School social worker, coach of the UNITY step team and the first Black female head track and field coach at Lawrence High School.
“I had a very simple dream when I was a kid. I wanted to be a head track coach at Lawrence High School … I wanted to be in charge. I had never seen anybody who looked like me, coached me.”
She credited the building’s teachers and coaches with helping her achieve her dreams and encouraged students to pursue their own. And she urged them to persevere no matter how long it took.
Pope-Trowbridge recalled how Norwood had invited her to return to South during her freshman year at LHS to recite an original poem for the MLK Jr. assembly. It mattered, she said, because Norwood was her first Black female teacher, and she looked up to her. Pope-Trowbridge told students someone younger looks up to them, too, and to embrace leadership as high school approaches.
“It’s something that you start and you cultivate, and you have the most amazing people who show up for you every day, whether they’re sick, whether they’re tired, whether they’re underpaid, whether they are in a pandemic. The teachers, these amazing adults in this building show up for you every day. And they show up for you so that you can stand here and one day be like me, realizing your dream.”
Choral risers of students from LHS and BMMS joined their voices. Known as The Black National Anthem, the hopeful lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” rang throughout the gym.
In 1900, NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem, which was later performed as a hymn with music composed by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. The song served as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950 and 60s.
Led by Whitney Maxwell, the BMMS Eighth Grade Orchestra played “When the Saints Go Marching In” — a Black spiritual that evolved into a famous jazz standard. The song celebrates a beloved souls’ entrance to heaven.
“Many spiritual lyrics took on a double meaning,” Maxwell told the audience. “They communicated Christian ideals while also expressing the hardship that was a result of being an enslaved African American.”
The words of rapper Common were related by Chachi Rodriguez, BMMS social work intern, in lyrics from “A Dream.” And Pope-Trowbridge’s step team — comprising LHS and FSHS students — gave a rousing performance. Steppers delivered rhythmic foot stomps, claps, chants and dance moves mixed with calls for justice, hiphop music and audio clips of King.
Meanwhile, a mural of bright butterflies — symbols of hope and change — created by BMMS art students held space in a nearby hallway.
Co-emcees Ash Wagner and Ace Jaeger kept the program on schedule. To facilitate social distancing for the COVID-19 pandemic, eighth graders attended the celebration in person, while sixth and seventh graders observed remotely from their classrooms.
Originally scheduled as a guest speaker, Superintendent Anthony Lewis did not attend the event due to COVID-19 isolation, district spokesperson Julie Boyle said.
King’s birthday will be observed Monday, Jan. 17 as a federal holiday and national day of service. His family has called on the country to use it as a “day on” and put pressure on lawmakers to act on stalled federal voting rights legislation.
Note: This article has been corrected to fix a misspelled name.