A hurricane and a small earthquake delayed the Washington, D.C., dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial from Aug. 28 to Oct. 16 this year. But the reschedule presented a once-in-a-lifetime chance for 43 Brookfield and LaGrange Park middle schoolers – who just happened to fly into the nation’s capital that weekend for an eighth-grade trip and got to attend the memorial dedication.
“They got to participate in history in the making,” said S.E. Gross seventh grade history teacher Ryan Evans, who chaperoned the trip. “Martin Luther King Jr. is probably the one figure that every kid knows. He’s more recognizable to students than any one president. He has a great social significance to them.”
The trip is offered yearly through Bright Spark educational tours. Eighth-grade teacher Shane Soto has taken students to Washington, D.C., for 10 years.
“This was definitely the best trip,” he says. Sixth-grade social studies teacher Michelle Krogh also attended.
After visiting the Capitol building on Oct. 15 and returning to the Hyatt-Dulles hotel, teachers hinted that they might have a “surprise” for the students the next morning, said Soto.
“We had to get to [the park] early enough in the morning,” Soto said. “We were prepared to abort the mission at the last minute if it was too crowded, or if we couldn’t get a good view.”
“When I found out we were going to the dedication, it was kind of like a dream,” said Gross School student Kierra Collins, 14. “My mom was really excited. She told me to take lots of pictures.”
But the weather was perfect and the students were able to get close enough to the dedication stage to see Jumbotrons clearly. The towering granite Martin Luther King Jr. memorial stands on West Potomac Park across from Thomas Jefferson and beside Franklin Delano Roosevelt. King is the only African American to have his own memorial and the only non-president to be memorialized on the mall.
“[The students] stood in the sun for three and a half hours, and they didn’t seem to mind,” said Evans. Memorial attendees were given baseball caps to keep the sun off.
At the dedication, students saw President Barack Obama (on the big screen) tell the crowd that King had paved the way for his presidency. A copy of Obama’s inauguration speech was placed in a time capsule at the monument.
Student Matthew Patton, 14 – who spent $1,000 of his own bar mitzvah money to pay for the trip – was impressed by Obama.
“He’s such a great speaker,” said Patton, who wondered what it would be like to talk to King.
“I’d ask him, ‘How does it feel to die for something you believe in? Did you know you would make the world a better place?'”
Patton said he hopes to see “the inauguration of the first Jewish president – that would be cool.”
The children also heard speeches by King’s children, the Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was imprisoned during the civil rights movement, and actress Cicely Tyson.
They were most impressed by Tyson’s granddaughter, 12-year-old actress Amandla Stelberg, who acknowledged that she was the same age as four young girls who died who died in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing.
“She spoke in front of 50,000 people and she was better than some of the other speakers, who were choked up with emotion,” said student Maddie Nakis. “All 47 of us, including the teachers are like a big family now, because we had this experience together.”
Nakis says she would time-travel backwards to witness King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” if she could.
The monument is inspired by a quote from that speech, given by King on the Washington Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. Carved by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, the 30-foot monument embodies the phrase “from the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
The students got to see the monument up close the following day.
“It’s like a tunnel through the granite mountain and then you come to the front and there he is,” said Evans.
Students appreciated the historic significance of the moment, but also came to another realization.
“Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, they were just people,” said Collins. “We’re just teenagers, but they were just people too. Seeing this monument let me realize that African Americans have overcome a lot of struggles. It made me wonder where would I be if people like Martin Luther King had just been lazy – and how would things be different for me.”