Moorestown wasn’t the scene of any significant milestones or speeches in the Civil Rights Movement, and yet as it approaches Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it holds a very unique distinction.
According to staff at Moorestown High School, the school was one of—if not the—first in the country to honor the late Dr. King with an assembly in the wake of his assassination.
Linda Dickason, who teaches advanced placement government and politics, has helped organize the assembly since 1985, when she became an advisor to the student association, or student government. But it was the students who first came up with the idea back in 1969—months after King’s assassination in April 1968—of holding an assembly around the civil rights leader’s Jan. 15 birthday.
“The students approached student government and the African-American Club to find a way to commemorate Dr. King, to honor Dr. King, and so an annual tradition began,” said Dickason, who explained that the assembly has, for the last 44 years, been a mix of student speakers and guest speakers, often with music and poetry blended in.
“We have always had music, be it the school concert choir or the Madrigals, and made the point that music was a key element of the Civil Rights Movement,” she added.
Schools across the country are rife with MLK assemblies and memorials this time of year. What makes Moorestown’s special is that it came several years before New Jersey made King’s birthday a state holiday, and almost two decades before it became a federal holiday.
Dickason said she visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, GA, in the summer of 2005 and, in speaking with staff, was told they didn’t know of any school districts that had held assemblies earlier than Moorestown.
“I commented that I was from a school district in which this tradition had been our long practice,” she said. “They were not aware of any other school district that did that, and we certainly did not know of any schools in this area that did so as well.”
Senior Julia Gips, president of the student association, said the distinction is “amazing.”
“It really shows our dedication to the values of our history, as a school,” she said. “A lot of people sort of forget what Martin Luther King was about … The Civil Rights Movement is technically over, but so many of his lessons still apply.”
Dickason—who described the Moorestown of the ‘60s as an “upper middle-class, pretty lily-white community” only a few years removed from segregated schools—traced the impetus behind Moorestown’s desire to honor King, and what he stood for, back to its Quaker roots.
“This is a Quaker community,” she said. “Although not everybody’s Quaker, we do understand what that means. So it may not be obvious, but it resonated.”
Once again, the entire high school gathered in the auditorium for two separate assemblies Friday, featuring a performance from the Madrigals, student speeches and a visit from guest speaker Rev. Dennis Blackwell, of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Woodlynne.
Blackwell’s message to the students, cribbed from King, was one of self-confidence as a path to loving others.
“King reminded us that we really can’t love other people until we first learn to love ourselves,” Blackwell said. “We have allowed our self-perception to be dictated by the media, shaped by peers, shaped by our family … and those junk messages have distorted the way in which we perceive ourselves.
“It’s never what you look like … What’s important and what makes you valuable, it’s what’s inside of you.”
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