Martin Luther King celebration focuses on area youth

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Anna Marie Lux
Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Jordan Peyer is preparing to share a powerful story of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Janesville Parker High School student will give voice to John Steele at the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King on Saturday at Blackhawk Technical College.

Steele was only 10 when he met two Civil Rights workers in the South. One was black and from Mississippi, and the other was white and from New York.

The Ku Klux Klan killed both on June 21, 1964.

Before the men died, they taught young Steele an enduring lesson: It is worth dying for freedom, even other people's freedom.

Peyer is among eight teens from three area high schools who will read aloud excerpts from the inspiring book, “Freedom's Children,” by Ellen Levine.

Young people penned stories about what it was like to fight segregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, when they were about the same ages as the students.

“I thought it would be most appropriate to have kids of the same age reading the stories,” said Edie Baran, who is directing the reader's theater. She also is on the planning committee of the annual event.

In addition to Parker High School, students from Janesville's Craig High and Beloit Memorial are taking part.

The reader's theater will do more than teach history.

“In a lot of ways, history is often presented as bare facts,” Baran said. “Yes, it is important to know facts, but it is so much more important to have an understanding of what people went through, how they were affected and the feelings they had. When you get to know someone's story, you cannot help but be connected to it.”

She praised the King gathering as a celebration that brings together a diverse mix of people.

“I think it is valuable when you say hello and have part of a meal with someone you don't know, but you are there for the same reason,” Baran said. “The reason we are there is to raise our voices, not just for Martin Luther King, but to all that he represented. I feel we are celebrating everyone who has done anything to bring more peace into the world. It is a joyous event.”

This year's get-together focuses on youth with the theme of young people making the world a better place.

In addition to readings, students will sing pieces of songs of the Civil Rights Movement, including one of the most famous, “We Shall Overcome.”

Also performing will be the Craig High School Women's Choir

Roselyne Ackley of Beloit said the event's planning committee has been getting more school children involved for the past five years.

In previous years, students have written postcards to Martin Luther King, submitted art and written essays.

This year, students wrote essays about how they are making the world a better place, and the essays will be on display for visitors to read.

The commemoration began at least 30 years ago by the civil rights committee of the United Auto Workers Local 95, Ackley said. She was secretary of the committee at the time and is part of the current planning committee.

“When we asked people what they knew about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, many said they did not know anything,” Ackley said. “It is amazing how many people did not know what went on in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The free programs are “a learning experience” and a chance for people from Beloit and Janesville to come together for fellowship, food and “a little education,” she explained.

“I want to stress how important it is for our two communities to come together,” Ackley said. “If you can't have communities, which are only nine miles apart, come together, then you can never bring the world together.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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