Locals, educators reinforce importance of Martin Luther King Jr.
Elizabeth Sherrod Hayes has experienced a great deal in her 61 years of life.
“I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve heard even more,” said Sherrod Hayes, affectionately known by friends and family as Liza. “My parents and grandmother followed the news pretty closely when I was growing up. I don’t remember too much about the early 1960s, but I sure remember April 4, 1968.”
At that time a fourth-grader in suburban Birmingham, Sherrod Hayes said she recalls going to school and a Bible class on what was otherwise a typical Thursday. When she woke the following day, however, everything had changed.
In the early evening hours of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James EarlRay. The most prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, King was standing on a second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when he was hit by gunfire just after 6 p.m. After emergency surgery at nearby St Joseph’s Hospital, King, 39, was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.
Sherrod Hayes said she doesn’t remember hearing the news before going to bed that evening, but she vividly remembers the mood in her home the following morning.
“It was like someone had let all of the air out of our home,” she said. “My mother didn’t say much that entire day. My daddy was a mix of sad and angry. My family had no personal association with Dr. King, but we felt like a close relative had been taken away from us.”
Nov. 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a finalized bill designating the third Monday of January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The federal government observed the holiday for the first time in 1986, and the holiday was observed for the first time by all 50 states Jan. 17, 2000.
“He was a polarizing figure from a very polarizing time,” Sherrod Hayes said. “My parents knew people that had marched in Selma, and we had heard him speak in Birmingham. The Civil Rights Movement was much greater than any one person, but he was able to give all the people a unified voice. Losing that voice was a big blow to a lot of folks.”
The Civil Rights Movement has been embedded in American history since the 1950s and is prevalent in public education nationwide.
“Civil Rights, as a topic, appears in almost every year of the average student’s high school experience,” said Daniel Cooper, social studies department chair at Hartselle High. “Generally speaking, the topic is discussed outside of the social studies (curriculum) as well. Our English teachers do a great job of incorporating thought-provoking readings into their specific content.”
Cooper said Hartselle students often read works like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and autobiographies of central figures such as Frederick Douglass.
“Of course, most people associate Civil Rights education with U.S. history courses and the era of the 1960s,” Cooper said. “This specific content is covered in ninth-grade world history, 11th-grade U.S. history and 12th-grade U.S. government.”
Sherrod Hayes said continuing to teach students about the movement, and figures like Dr. King, is critical for America’s future.
“There is hate all around us,” she said. “In Dr. King we had a man who had the nerve to stand up and speak for freedom and equality for all. Understanding his legacy is nice. Seeing his picture on stamps and in history books is nice; so is seeing and hearing clips of him speaking in Washington D.C. or Selma or Birmingham.
“The underlying reasons for all of those actions, and those accolades, is what really matters most. I hope the younger generations understand that.”
Cooper said lessons about the Civil Rights era are, in his experience, often received with enthusiasm from students.
“They see its relevance to the world around them,” he said, “and they have background knowledge from their junior high and elementary teachers. It is essential for character development, instilling a sense of empathy for others and recognizing the contributions of our state to not only a national movement but, in reality, a global movement.”
Sherrod Hayes said she hopes to see that kind of enthusiasm spread.
“When Dr. King stood in front of the masses in Washington and talked about how now was the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children, he might as well have been speaking from the future,” she said. “I don’t think it’s about race now –not like it was then. I think it’s about equality for people of all races, sexes, ages, you name it. He might have been speaking out against racial injustice then, but those words mean just as much now as they did 55 years ago.
“We should never forget that.”