Danielle Sablan of Skyway Elementary School stood before an auditorium packed with fellow Coeur d’Alene fifth-graders Thursday morning and spoke of her dream of a world at peace.
“Let’s reach our goals. It is time to act. It is time to change,” Sablan read from her essay, “Let’s Let Peace Reign.”
“Why does the world think violence will solve anything?” she said. “Why? Let’s ask ourselves just that – why?”
Her message mingled with similar themes of love, acceptance, understanding and equality at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. program for all fifth-grade students in the Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls school districts.
It was the 30th year of the gathering, sponsored with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. More than 36,000 students have attended since 1986, and many of those from the first classes have grown up to see their children take part as well.
“The answer in the long run to reducing prejudice is through education,” said Tony Stewart, one of the founding members of the task force as well as the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene. “I just don’t think you can have all these students going through these programs and not become more appreciative of other human beings and how they treat them.”
A highlight of Thursday’s program at Lake City Community Church was an appearance by the Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins, pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Spokane.
Watkins noted it was King’s birthday and, paraphrasing a 1967 speech by King, told the children, “If he was here, he would tell each of you if you can’t be a tall pine on the top of a hill, you be a shrub in the valley. But you be the very best little shrub that you can be. If you can’t be a tree, be a bush. If you can’t be the highway, be the trail. If you can’t be the sun, be the star. Because it’s not by the size that you win or fail. He would challenge each of you to be the very best that you can be.”
Then, as he’s done many times before, Watkins transitioned into a stirring recitation of portions of King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington. When he finished, the children from Coeur d’Alene’s 10 elementary schools rose to applaud. A second program for students from the five Post Falls elementary schools followed.
The celebration long has relied on the talents and thoughts of the students, who sing, dance and read their own essays inspired by the words and deeds of King and other civil rights heroes.
Trey Brennan of Winton Elementary School wrote of the qualities of a hero, such as the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.
“My hero is Ruby Bridges because she didn’t let racism ruin her education. Ruby had to walk through angry mobs of white people every day just to go to school. Yet, she prayed for them. She prayed for God to forgive them for all the bad things they said,” Brennan wrote in his essay.
“Because of Ruby’s courage and determination, she made it possible for all races to attend the same school,” he said. “That is why she is a true hero.”
Ellie Morrisroe of Hayden Meadows Elementary School was motivated by King’s 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.”
“I can be a drum major, like Dr. King, by helping kids who experience difficult situations in life,” she said, mentioning those whose families can’t afford warm winter clothing, children who are mistreated and those who need tutoring help at school. “I can be there for those kids.”
Kira Adam, a fifth-grade teacher at Borah Elementary School, said the program allows students to reflect on discrimination that still exists and how everyone should be treated equally.
“It’s just so neat to see that students who are so young, only 10 years old, have these thoughts and emotions and really want good and peace and love for our country,” Adam said. “And it’s really neat to see this is the next generation that’s going to represent us.”
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