Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors the slain civil-rights leader—and so much more. That was the message of this year’s MLK Day Assembly at Rivers, held virtually this past Monday. In particular, the interactive presentation focused on the Black women, many of them unsung, who played pivotal roles in the struggle for equal rights.
Intersectionality—a term coined by civil-rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw—was the watchword of the day. In this context, it means understanding how people’s various social and political identities combine to create a complex web of both discrimination and privilege. At Monday’s assembly, the focus was on the intersection of gender and race, a fitting approach for a year in which the school’s DEI focus is itself gender.
As has happened in past years, the meeting was led and largely organized by students involved with BRIDGE, a campus organization focusing on issues of diversity, equity, and social justice. Lucy Ton That and Celina Chen opened up the proceedings with an exercise designed to raise awareness about who is and isn’t typically included in conversations about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Audience members stood (students watched the presentation in classrooms, with their advisory groups) as Ton That and Chen read through a list of names, asking listeners to sit when they didn’t recognize a name. The first few names were familiar, including MLK himself, Malcolm X, and John Lewis. But after segueing into the names of women who were active in the movement, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Pauli Murray, they noted, “We can’t see you, but we’re going to guess that nearly everyone is sitting at this point,” adding, “In this respect, we’re not unique. You could run this activity in any school in America and the outcome would likely be the same.”
Student speakers Walt Regan-Loomis and Dan Shanley also noted that while today King is widely honored as a symbol of racial progress, in his time he was both more radical and less revered across the political spectrum. Said Shanley, “King is quoted by politicians on both sides of the aisle as if his words can be used to serve any cause or position. Many of his more radical stances are overlooked or misrepresented in order to present a more palatable version of King—a version that makes it hard to believe that once upon a time, he was viewed as a threat to our own government and was even spied on by the FBI.”
Natalia Ramos made the point that it took many years to designate MLK Day as a national holiday; Finn McCusker added, “We know the work of antiracism goes far beyond a single day or a single person.”
History faculty member Arturo Bagley addressed the students, as he has at past MLK Day assemblies, sharing in brief the stories of Hamer, Baker, Murray, and others and noting that Black women were “the backbone” of the movement. Upper School students also viewed an excerpt from a TED Talk by Crenshaw, in which she discusses the concept of intersectionality.
Interspersed throughout the presentation were designated periods for students to debrief and discuss in their advisory groups in real time. They were asked to consider such questions as “What could we do as a society to learn more about civil rights as a larger and ongoing movement?” and, following the Crenshaw segment, “What did the talk add to your understanding of intersectionality?”
The program wrapped with a short video recognizing Black women who were active in the civil rights movement. Due to changes in COVID guidelines, the hour-long presentation had to pivot from live to virtual at the last minute, but it proceeded smoothly.
Students took the interactive discussion segments to heart, faculty members report. “My advisees had heard the word ‘intersectionality’ before, but Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED Talk raised their understanding enormously, by both explaining the origin of the term (standing in the traffic at an intersection not of roads, but of racism and sexism, for example) and by giving a concrete example,” said science faculty member Stewart Pierson. History faculty member Andrea Diaz reported, “I think my advisees walked away from this assembly really thinking about the questions posed to us as audience members—especially those regarding why we don’t learn more about the various women discussed.”