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The Indiana Daily Student

city community events

Speakers focus on education issues, book bans during MLK Jr. Birthday Celebration

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City officials and community members gathered for a night of musical performances and speeches focusing on inclusive education on Monday for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.  

The annual celebration is hosted by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Commission. According to Michelle Moss, staff liaison to the commission, the city started the celebration in 1993 to honor King and promote diversity and acceptance in the community.  

The theme of this year’s celebration was “Unlocking Freedom: The Transformative and Liberating Power of Education.” Moss said the commission always tries to pick a theme likely to be relevant to community members.  

“Hopefully with the theme and people coming out, it will get people thinking and empowered,” Moss said. “Without education you don’t have an opportunity to think about what’s outside of your door.”  

Speaking to a crowd of more than 50 residents in the theater Monday night, activist and educator Jesse Hagopian, the event’s featured speaker, shared how restrictions on books and lessons that address diversity, equity and inclusion threaten the rest of society. According to the free expression advocacy group PEN America’s 2023 report, state legislatures across the country introduced 110 bills in 2023 that restrict the teaching of topics including race, gender, American history and LGBTQ+ identities. This report states the Indiana legislature introduced 13 bills restricting teaching on these topics.  

In May 2023, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill which allows parents and community members to request schools ban books deemed “obscene” or “harmful to minors” from libraries. Holcomb also signed a law in May 2023 that prohibits teachers from teaching human sexuality to students in pre-kindergarten through third grade. 

“These laws would require educators to lie to their students about the history of this country and to deny the fact that it was built off the enslaved labor of Black people and the stolen land of Native people,” Hagopian said in his speech. 

Hagopian also expressed his anger towards conservative politicians who have used King’s words to speak against educational initiatives such as critical race theory. He specifically mentioned a tweet from former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, where McCarthy wrote, “Critical Race Theory goes against everything Martin Luther King Jr. taught us—to not judge others by the color of their skin. The Left is trying to take America backward.”     

“Martin Luther King was a radical—he wanted to overturn the society that we live in today that could be the wealthiest society in the world and still have thousands of people out in the street in the cold without a home,” Hagopian said. “This is the King that’s too hot for the textbooks, that [Ron] DeSantis doesn’t want you to know about because it contradicts everything they’re saying.”  

Other speakers at Monday’s celebration, including Monroe County Commissioner Penny Githens, also addressed efforts to restrict education across the country. Githens, while discussing how Monroe County has allocated funds for various education initiatives, said education is “the great equalizer.”  

"We must absolutely guarantee that the full history of the United States is taught,” Githens said in her speech. “That means that all of our kids should be learning about the Tulsa Massacre. They need to learn the true history of slavery in our country. They need to learn about the Civil Rights movement.” 

While introducing Hagopian as the celebration’s keynote speaker, Rashad Nelms, Associate Vice President for Strategy and Innovation in the Indiana University Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, encouraged those in the audience to address inequities in their community. 

“We need you to seek out and to address inequities and inequalities rather than merely respond to them,” Nelms said. “It is not enough to simply put a Black Lives Matter sign in our yards or to implore racist statements and acts. We need you to proactively seek to address individual, institutional and systemic inequities.”  

The Dr. Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Commission sponsors educational programs promoting social justice and equality throughout the year and featured the program “One Community Curriculum” during the event Monday night. Jessica Davis, member of the commission and assistant head of school for Bloomington Montessori School, said One Community Curriculum is a program that allows community leaders, educators and volunteers to lead students in grades K-8 in a once-yearly discussion about inclusivity, diversity and acceptance. Davis said each of these lessons is based on a quote from King.  

“It’s guided by the philosophy of Maria Montessori, ‘the child is both a hope and a promise for mankind,’” Davis said.  

Those interested in the One Community Curriculum program can email mlk@bloomington.in.gov for more information. 

Celebration attendees also watched musical performances from three student groups. The Highland Park Elementary School Choir, comprised of 21 second grade students, performed five songs to express the ways they value Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Students in the Fairview World Music Class performed traditional music from Zimbabwe. The IU African American Choral Ensemble also performed three ensembles.  

During Monday’s celebration, Bloomington Mayor Kerry Thomson presented the 2024 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award to Sarah McCue, a referral specialist at the Monroe County Community Kitchen. The city presents this award to a Monroe County resident, business or advocacy group who has made contributions to race relations, justice and human rights, according to the commission. While introducing McCue, Thomson said she has been reflecting on how to make Bloomington a “beloved community”, a term King used to describe his vision for the world, since she was sworn into office Jan. 1.  

“[King] knew that we had to eliminate bias, we had to come to a point of racial justice, and we had to eliminate the vast economic disparities that are facing us in the world,” Thomson said. “We haven’t made it, we’re still working on it, and tonight we’re celebrating progress that’s been made and we’re coming together as a community to recommit to getting closer to that beloved community this year.”  

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