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Focus on children and success at Freedom Awards Public Forum

  • Written by Dorothy Bracy Alston
Hundreds of students and community folk from across the Mid-South gathered at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ last Thursday, as the National Civil Rights Museum kicked off its 20-year anniversary with a Freedom Award Public Forum.
Hundreds of students and community folk from across the Mid-South gathered at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ last Thursday (Nov. 10) morning, as corporate sponsor International Paper helped the National Civil Rights Museum kick off its 20-year anniversary with a Freedom Award Public Forum.

This year’s theme, “Connecting People And History,” was apropos as six budding student activists received The Keeper of the Dream Award, along with celebrated activists Danny Glover, Marva Collins and Russlynn Ali, all receiving Pioneer Freedom Awards, in activism, and education respectively.

The crowd’s optimism was rapturous as students’ performed. The Overton High School Jazz Band played majestically and skillfully. Watoto de Africa danced the crowd to its feet with a “Tribute to Rosa Parks.” Buoyant and upbeat 14-year-old Deidra Shores, national winner of the Reporter Contest for NBC’s Today Show, emceed next to seasoned Fox-13 anchor and “Good Morning Memphis” host, Valerie Calhoun.
From beginning to end, the forum was all about the students. Students erupted excitedly as their school’s name was shouted out. With far too many schools to acknowledge, emcees, Shay Ware, a senior at Craigmont High, and Thomas Hence, a senior at Central High, did their best and acknowledged about 25 schools. Jonah Middleton shouted out Elmore Park Middle; Malcolm Taylor yelled Coleman Elementary, Clifton Davis screamed Hamilton High; Thaddeus Morgan bellowed out Millington Middle, and Taylor Powell screamed Ridgeway High.

Before unveiling the new Public Forum Talk Show format that Calhoun called “a watered down version of the Oprah Winfrey Show,” John Faraci, chairman and CEO of International Paper, presented The Keeper of the Dream Award to six deserving, 6th -12th  grade students. Each was honored for extraordinary courage, compassion, leadership, and/or service.

First place winner and sixth grader at Schilling Farms Middle School, McKinley Farris was nominated for service; Jeremiah Wooten, eighth grade, second place winner from Appling Middle, was nominated for compassion; Briana Palmer, third place winner, eighth grader at Germantown School, was nominated for leadership; first place honoree, Terrance Brooks, Raleigh-Egypt senior, was nominated for service; Somer Greene, senior at Hutchinson School, got second place for courage; and Jill Fredenburg, junior at Immaculate Conception, won third place for leadership.

The crowd was attentive and appeared eager to hear remarks from three nationally respected pioneering and trailblazing erudites, and they did not disappoint. Russlynn H. Ali, U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for Civil Rights, appointed by President Barack Obama, was first greeted to the stage.

In a thunderous cheer, the crowd welcomed pioneer educator and innovator, 75-year-old Marva Collins, who oversaw Westside Preparatory School in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood for 30 years, and who admittedly turned down the invitations of five presidents to become U.S. Department of Education Secretary.

The largest eruption from the crowd signaled that celebrated film star and activist Danny Glover had made his way to the platform.

Education was thematic during the Q&A of the honorees. Ali, Glover and Collins’ love for activism was intoxicating as these homespun education and political activists spoke passionately about the role education plays in citizenship, civil rights and democracy; along with parent involvement, the power of youth participation, low student expectation and the like.

In her summation of the horrors of low expectation, Ali quoted President George W. Bush, who spoke of “the soft bigotry of low expectation,” “which is now not so soft,” said Ali.

Collins’ conclusion was that, “There’s no achievement gap, there is an expectation gap.”

Glover credited his parents for his activism, which started at a young age. “Young people are the instruments of change. Each generation makes its own history and are judged by that history.”

Ali added, “The rent we pay is from standing on the shoulders of greatness. The civil rights movement was led by young people and we must continue to write that chapter today knowing we stood on the shoulders of greatness.”

Collins credited her parents for allowing her the freedom to be different because she had her on way of doing things. A consummate educator, she had story after story of teaching strategies and testimonies of how those strategies positively impacted her students.

In an Oprah-styled surprise, two of Collins’ former fifth-grade students, Kathy Bates Simpson and Genevieve Bates-Mayhard, sisters now living in Memphis, were recognized. Collins dabbed her eyes as the sisters authenticated Collins devotion and commitment to her students. making sure all her students knew as much as Yale and Harvard college students.

Bates-Simpson has an MBA and is a college professor at both Southwest Tennessee Community College and Bethel University. She told the New Tri-State Defender, that her late mother, who single-handily raised eight successful children, and Collins as her greatest inspiration.

“Both were strong on education, discipline and there was never any negativity or limitations. She (Collins) taught us to be different and that there were no limitations according to your circumstances.”

Bates-Mayhard has a BA and works at Methodist Alliance Home and Hospice Care.

 “I attended Westside Prep from fourth to eighth grade. Mrs. Collins was very strong on education. She made sure we stood up straight and spoke clearly or we had to write why we thought we couldn’t stand up and do what was asked,” she said.

“ Everyone was afraid of Mrs. Collins because she demanded you do your best. Fifty years later, she’s still educating. If I close my eyes, she sounds the same as when I was in that class.”

Children, said Collins, need to realize life is not about talking but it’s about doing. And, she said, “We need to decide our children will be universal thinkers and that they will have a universal attitude.”

Glover invited the audience into his love of advocacy. He spoke of love for reading, which he credited to his second grade teacher, Ms. Lumbard.

“She realized I had difficulty in reading but I had a facility for math and she supported me in what I did well.”

Now, Glover reads about six books at a time.

Glover said education serves not only the idea of work but to “strengthen our bonds with each other and to transform our relationships with each other.”

Ali, an Obama appointee in education and civil rights, said some progress in education has been made, complacency notwithstanding. Some progress is not enough progress to stand on, she said.

“Let’s ask ourselves why do kids succeed? It’s extra ordinary teachers, extra ordinary circumstances and extra ordinary involvement. If you can’t read, you are not free.”

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