Hundreds of elementary and middle school children celebrated the Lincoln Memorial’s 100th anniversary when they stood in the very place the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to recite the famous words, along with other well-known speeches of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Just like King did in 1963, young people from five District public schools stood confidently at the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looked over at the Washington Monument and reflecting pool, and made presentations before peers, teachers, parents and onlookers.
On that chilly Jan. 13 morning, Paola Winston-Vazquez counted among dozens of young people from Stuart-Hobson Middle School who recited the “Let Freedom Ring” speech that former President Barack Obama gave in 2013 to commemorate the March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the weeks leading up to the event, Paola collaborated with her peers as they sharpened their stage presence and examined the significance of themes that Obama touched on in his address. “It’s about not forgetting where we come from and our progress so we can keep fighting,” Paola said.
“Our past has bettered our future,” she continued. “It was an honor to learn from him and say his words.” For nearly three hours, visitors looked in awe as students from Langley Elementary, C.W. Harris Elementary, School Within A School at Goding Elementary School, Hyde-Addison Elementary School and Stuart-Hobson Middle School channeled the spirit of King, Obama, President Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in their presentations.
The event, a collaborative effort between DC Public Schools and the National Park Service, started with opening remarks from Ranger Jen Epstein and Dr. Calvin R. Hooks, principal of Hyde-Addison Elementary School. Musical numbers from students included “My Country Tis of Thee,” which opera singer Marian Anderson famously sang at the Lincoln Memorial, James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Sister Rosa,” by the Neville Brothers, and “We Shall Overcome.”
After the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let Anderson perform at DAR Constitution Hall because of her race, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership from the organization and arranged for the contralto to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939.
Students from Langley Elementary School recited Roosevelt’s DAR resignation letter and Lincoln’s “A House Divided” speech.
Later, C.W. Harris Elementary School students recited Dr. King’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech while 5th and 6th graders from School Within A School at Goding Elementary School recited “I Have a Dream.” Fifth graders from Hyde-Addison Elementary School read the speech Obama made on the night of his election.
Paola and her peers from Stuart-Hobson Middle School wrapped up the presentations with their recitation of Obama’s “Let Freedom Ring.”
For Toni Pergerson, theater teacher at Stuart-Hobson Middle School, working with students on their presentation allowed for further examination of Obama’s words, and how far Black people have come along in the United States. She also noted that students took into account the part they play in continuing that legacy.
“We studied the speech and students were assigned to a portion,” Pergerson said. “Students learned about stage presence and drew comparisons [to] see how history repeats itself. They talked about their responsibility to do their part as citizens and push forth with the vision.”