The nearly 800 students and staff who filter out the door of a New Jersey middle school each year to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., holding handmade posters and peace signs, may be silent as they solemnly march down the street and through the village, but their message of hope is perfectly clear.
“We are here today because we have to continue Dr. King’s mission,” said Ruby Luhrman, a sixth grader at Maplewood Middle School. “It’s not over. We march to show that he did not die in vain.”
Indeed, the silent peace march, started in the year 2000, is a moving reminder that the fight for equality championed by the civil rights leader more than 50 years ago lives on in communities across America. It’s the kind of social activism and spirit of togetherness that MassMutual celebrates and supports.
“It’s really striking when you stand at the corner of the village, when the back of the line finally reaches the front, and you see a loop of unified middle schoolers silently expressing their respect for Dr. King,” said Richard Palmgren, the social studies teacher at MMS who started the march. “Our silent march is hopefully quite loud.”
The Michele Turner Martin Luther King Jr. Silent Peace March, which also honors a beloved former teacher who championed Dr. King’s message, was initiated as a way to bring history to life for kids who might otherwise forget the sacrifice that civil rights leaders made to ensure freedom for future generations.
“Kids today don’t have much experience with the history of how it is that we are able to enjoy living in this diverse community,” said Palmgren. “It was a struggle. People put their lives on the line. The reason we march silently is to say that we respect what you guys did so loudly. We respect the voices that cried out and called for change. And we march because there’s still so much more that needs to be done.”
Sixth grader Yazid Thompson said that’s what resonates for him when he reflects on the life and legacy of Dr. King. “Everything was segregated back then and I know that I wouldn’t have the friends I have now or be able to do the things I do now if it wasn’t for him,” he said.
During the week of the march, students in every homeroom class are encouraged to make posters and banners that represent their collective views about civil rights, a project intended to generate dialogue about Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, and the challenges that exist today for disenfranchised populations.
“We march rain or shine because issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia still impact our nation and our march shows everyone that we really care,” said MMS 8th grader Laila Gold.
After the march, the students gather near the middle school flagpole to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and to hear the chorus perform the gospel song and civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” They then return to their classes to watch Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety.
“We give them a copy of the speech to follow along and the only sound you can hear is the turning of pages,” said Palmgren. “Some of these kids are 8 th graders, so they’ve listened to it now three times, but they’re just as engaged now as they were the first time they heard it.”
When he first proposed the peace march, Palmgren said the township and some school administrators initially suggested it would be impossible to get hundreds of middle schoolers to walk quietly through the village. They were wrong. “We’ve never had a problem in all these years,” he said. “Not once.”
The kids are committed to Martin Luther King’s cause, they embrace the diversity that defines their community, and they benefit from the yearly reminder that equality is, and always will be, worth the fight, he said.
And so they march.
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This article was originally published in January 2018.