The atmosphere in the Lewis and Clark School fifth-grade classroom last Wednesday was predictably giddy. It was the last class of the day, and the students were working on an art project for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Janet Potts, the art teacher, shushed the chatty kids and warned them that this was a "very grown-up project, way harder than the T-shirts" which the younger grades were creating. Potts explained that they would be constructing busts of King out of clay, and before she laid out the instructions, she asked the students what they knew about King.
"Martin Luther King believed blacks and whites were equal," one said.
Another raised his hand and discussed school segregation, separate drinking fountains and Rosa Parks.
Potts gave a brief history lesson about King: his childhood as the son of a Baptist minister, graduation from high school at age 15 (Not much older than the kids in the class, Potts pointed out.), the "I Have a Dream" speech and a devotion to equality for all people that eventually resulted in his assassination.
"Does anyone know how he died?" Potts asked.
"Someone sniped him," a timid boy answered.
"That's right, he was shot because of his beliefs," Potts said. "And if you make a clay statue today, it might help you remember his message forever."
|Fifth graders discuss civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr.|
But, Ken Toole, with the Montana Human Rights Network, says aggressive tactics were needed to establish Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a state holiday at all, with Montana among the final three states in the nation to adopt the holiday in 1991.
"Jerry Noble (R-Great Falls at the time) sponsored legislation to derail the whole thing, so we got the bill fast-tracked. The opposition had no time to build."
Toole described Noble's bill, which called for a Chief Joseph Day, as being intended to split the Montana Legislature so that neither bill would pass. Toole says he and others found Noble's bill especially suspect because he had never before supported Native American causes. He calls the vocal support of Indian leaders instrumental in getting the King holiday instituted.
"Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was not about a specific group, but civil rights for everyone," Toole says.
Another obstacle was Representative Bob Clark's testimony against the bill for the King holiday, where he claimed there were "unanswered questions" about King's character.
"That was right-wing rhetoric," Toole believes, adding that the voting on the King Holiday bill was mainly along partisan lines, with the majority of Democrats supporting the measure. "But I don't think it would ever pass right now."
Which is precisely why observing the King Holiday is so important for Montana today, says Ralph Stone, an organizer of the march and speeches that are scheduled to take place in Missoula next Monday.
"I think King will go down as one of the greatest men of the 20th century," Stone says. "There is no one who better articulated the ideals of justice, equality and freedom. He spoke for all of us, even though he was committed to giving black Americans a sense of hope."
Stone adds that despite a relatively minuscule population of African Americans in Montana, King's legacy is one that should appeal to all of us.
Stone has worked in the civil rights movement throughout his life, though he admits that, in the 1960s, King wasn't who he thought of as the ideal.
"I was more attuned to what the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee was doing. I admired people like Julian Bond and Stokely Carmichael. I was more naive then, and I thought King wasn't willing to put his life on the line. But King was an apostle of nonviolence, and he counseled not to hate even though he was hated by others."
Stone says we haven't kept up the pace of change or fulfilled King's vision of our "better selves." He says King was beginning to focus on issues of class shortly before his death, and Stone sees the lack of parity between incomes in this country as being a major point of divisiveness.
"It's not just black and white, but rich and poor. Look at the inner cities-the ghettos are just as bad or worse than ever. We've put blinders on; we're tired of dealing with it."
While Stone is glad to see less personal racism in the nation today, he insists that we still need to work against more institutional forms of racism. We should associate more with those possessing different class status and who travel in different circles, he says.
Edward Sanford, associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Montana, will discuss some all-encompassing components of civil rights, such as gender, poverty and marginalization, in a speech next Monday titled, "How Would Martin Luther King, Jr. Respond?"
"I think he would feel there are major improvements," Sanford says. "On the other hand, he'd cry buckets of tears over the poverty, our education system, the amount of people in prison and the amount of people living in deplorable circumstances. He'd probably be disappointed at the prejudice that still exists."
The kids in Mrs. Potts' fifth-grade art class seem far removed from contemporary social problems, earnestly, if simplistically, discussing King's life and their plans for the holiday.
"I like studying about it, but I didn't like how they were treated," says Kevin Ireland. "I'm going to remember what he was like. He died for us to get freedom for blacks. It's a new world because of him."