Milwaukee’s Students as “Crusaders for Justice”

5th Annual King Writing Contest

By Rita Tenorio

‘‘We should fight for what’s right but at the same time we should keep in mind our human dignity and carry peace in our hearts; that’s the way Martin Luther King would have had it.”

These are the words used by Deborah Wagner to conclude her prize winning essay, one of eight first-place essays that were read at the recent Awards Ceremony for the Fifth Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Contest. The focus of the awards ceremony was on the winners. Yet, we celebrated more than that we honored, with song, dance and words, the culmination of almost a year’s worth of effort on the part of many people who work to make the contest a success. The writing contest began in 1983 as a project of a small group of classroom teachers who saw that most children knew little about black history. There were few efforts by the school system to increase either students’ or teachers’ awareness and understanding about this important subject. This was also a time when people throughout the country were intensifying their-efforts to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday is a national holiday. Our group felt that a writing contest based on the life and ideals of Dr. King would offer a creative approach to increase and improve the teaching of black history in the schools.

Each year since, the contest has grown in both size and scope. The committee has expanded to include people from many community organizations, including the Milwaukee public Library System and the MTEA. We’ve co-sponsored several successful black history workshops for teachers, as well as a Saturday workshop for children. Through the MTEA, a resource packet has been developed offering information and ideas on teaching about Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Each student who enters the contest receives a certificate of participation, and a King lapel button.

In five years, over 14,000 buttons have been distributed and worn proudly by children and adults throughout Milwaukee County.

Over 2800 students participated in the year’s contest, with entries from many of Milwaukee’s public and private schools. Throughout it’s five-year history, the Writing Contest Committee has held as its main objective to involve more teachers and students in learning about black history, about the life and ideals of Dr. M.L. King, Jr. and the continuing struggle for peace with justice.

All of the winning essays reflected on Dr. King as a crusader, his dream, and the way in which his ideals have “touched” our lives. In the topic question, the students this year were asked to go one step further and relate “what (they) could do to be a similar crusader…’’ During a very heartwarming and thought-provoking presentation, we saw and heard that the winning students know King’s words and understand how his insights relate to their lives.

Winners were presented in eight grade level categories from Kindergarten through high school. At the awards ceremony, the first graders from Morgandale School presented their group project a large quilt, that combined all the students’ thoughts as to how they could be ’‘Crusaders for Justice.” One square said, “Martin Luther King was a brave man. It doesn’t matter if you are brown or white or black. I’ll tell people that it’s not fair that brown and black people and white people don’t get to play with other people.” Anne Wiessmueller’s essay too, addressed the issue of fairness. “In my school. I’ll spread the thoughts of Dr. King by treating all teachers and students with respect

At all grade levels, the students showed a depth of understanding in regards to Dr. King’s values. Throughout the presentation we heard that the students saw themselves as vehicles for change, as the persons who would continue the struggle. The younger children, such as Nick Kettenhofpn, from 38th St School, saw the application in their daily lives: “I would do good in my school work, and not fool around. Then maybe my friends would follow my example.” With age and greater understanding, the essays were more insightful. Cammeille Staples an 11th grader from Marquette’s Upward Bound program, states, “We must learn not only to be comfortable around people that are ‘different’ from us, we must learn to accept them as the same people.” Katie Oberhauser,, from Dominican High School, sees that she needs “to become a bridge connecting the world, bringing people together.”

Some themes recurred in the children’s essays. The students saw a need to recognize the changes that have been made because of the “courage” of those in the past. Several of the winners, like Tracy Johnson, from Rufus King, chose to focus on the idea of education “as a tool for equality.” Cammeille Staples calls the lack of education a “peace-breaker.” She states, “Now that we have the privilege, we must take advantage of the opportunity that we have been given… This does have an effect on peace.” These students recognize that racism is still present in our society. Hiep Trieu, a student whose family came to this country from Vietnam says, “…even in America, the land of opportunity, I still could not find total justice and equality.” Others spoke to.the threat of nuclear war, “…how can I work to achieve King’s dream when others are threatening to destroy this world King had struggled so fervently to improve? I must be a committed crusader — I want to live!”

Katie Oberhauser’s strong statement is one of several in the winning essays stressing that to continue the work o f Dr. King is to become active around current issues. Jessica Rasmussen from Lloyd St. feels that “Martin Luther King’s ideas could help our country solve some of the problems of today such as drugs and the homeless.” Deborah Wagner says, “…People are always complaining about nothing getting done – – issues that need to be solved are still unsolved….Martin Luther King…would have been out there stirring up issues to assure justice.” The students see that we need to “raise money for shelters” for the homeless, “provide more jobs,” “join charities and do volunteer work,” “organize a group made up of teenagers protesting nuclear war,”- and “teach people to be fair-to others.” It’s exciting to see that the children understand, and are empowered by the words of Dr. King. They see the need to become active, to organize for the things they believe in, to involve oneself in the struggle for peace with justice.

It’s a marvelous thing to listen to students such as these, young people who care about their community and the World’s Listening to them read their essays is inspiring. One is thankful to the parents, teachers, and friends in their lives who taught them about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Encouraged them to write down their thoughts. One is hopeful for the influence of these children on the lives of others. As Tammy Redfeld said, “As long as Dr. King’s dream lives on there is hope for a better tomorrow.” It gives us all hope for the future. 

Rita Tenorio is active on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Contest Committee.