The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 17, 2003


Thoughts on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday

On Sunday afternoon, January 12, I attended a Martin Luther King Celebration, sponsored by the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council, at the Concord Academy Performing Arts Center in Concord. The public had been invited to view a documentary film, At the River I Stand, which explores the last two months of Dr. King's life and ends with his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The facilitator for the event was Joseph Zellner, an African-American history teacher at Concord-Carlisle High School. There he teaches United States history and has developed a course, "Africa and African-Americans", which is an elective for juniors and seniors.

The focus of the film was on how Memphis' black community rallied behind 1,300 black sanitation workers who were on strike to earn a living wage. King joined that 65-day struggle with his nonviolent strategy, but lost his life peacefully fighting for the civil rights of black Americans.

After the film, Mr. Zellner led a provocative discussion, which got his audience thinking. "I have a dream," What did it mean? "How might we fulfill that dream?" "If King had lived, where would we be today?"

Zellner called King's death "a time-stopping event" and asked the audience to remember where they were on that day. That was not a problem for me. On April 4, 1968, I was at the Boston Lying-In Hospital in Brookline having a baby. I remember waking up in the morning after the birth of my son and learning that King had been assassinated. I watched the news throughout the day with its references to violence taking place all across the country, and I worried about my husband who was scheduled to play for his chess team that evening in Central Square, Cambridge. Fortunately, neither Boston nor Cambridge exploded that night.

Jumping ahead to 2003, here are some of my thoughts on Martin Luther King's birthday. Why were there so few young people in the audience on Sunday at Concord Academy for the Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration? Is there some sort of generation gap when it comes to the civil rights movement?

With the flap over Senator Trent Lott's words at Senator Strom Thurmond's birthday party and Judge Pickering's renomination, one wonders how much change there really has been in our attitude toward human rights and justice for African- Americans.

And how will the Supreme Court rule in the case of affirmative action at the University of Michigan? How will this affect college admissions? I haven't made up my mind on this one.

In Concord, choral music and theater director Chuck Brown will lead CCHS students in a production of Ragtime, a musical that was chosen for several reasons, including getting more METCO students involved in school drama arts. Teacher Joe Zellner will take a part in the production, playing Booker T. Washington.

On Tuesday Wendy Davis of East Street recalled the time in the early sixties when she and her late husband Jim joined King and members of church groups from all across the country for the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. "It was a thrilling experience for both of us," she well remembered.

These are just a few of my thoughts for Martin Luther King's birthday on Monday. Will you and your family be taking time out to consider the true meaning of this holiday?

Finding the Balance

In third grade, I had a friend whose brother was retarded. The boy stayed home with his mother. Rarely did children come to their house to play. The family's name was Smart, and I figure they'd had about enough of people thinking that was ironic or funny.

One day I was asked in to play. Thinking back, I suppose this unusual invitation came because my mom was working as a volunteer to establish a center to school retarded children. I don't remember much about the play date, only that it was short, that my glimpse of the brother was brief, and that he was very different. I don't remember much about my friend after that school year. I'm guessing the family moved on.

In those days, some 35 years ago, you didn't see many people with Down syndrome or other disabilities. For the most part they were kept at home, received little if any education, and weren't considered employable. The most severely impaired were essentially warehoused.

Today we see people with disabilities working productively in a variety of jobs. Children with a wide array of mental and physical disorders are educated, most in public schools or publicly-funded collaborative programs. A very few profoundly impaired children whose families cannot adequately care for them in their homes live instead in residential programs. By state and federal law, school districts are responsible for these children. In Massachusetts, the districts share the costs 50-50 with the state Department of Education (DOE) for 1,400 residential placements.

I know of no one who would question that it is a good thing to have the disabled live and work openly among the fully able, that this is more decent, just, and beneficial to all than the ethos of a few decades ago, when low expectations, heartache, and shame were the lot of the disabled and their families.

As a species, we've progressed this much. But we still struggle over how to pay for the education and care of the disabled. We haven't synchronized the moral with the financial to find a point that balances the needs of the few with those of the many.

Recently, the DOE decided not to pay its share of tuition for the state's profoundly impaired children, at least for one quarter of this year. Because of a $15 million shortfall in its funding, DOE told schools to foot the whole bill.

Schools are obligated by law to pay these tuitions out of current operating funds. How they absorb this hit and how their communities respond financially will differ. There is no clear legal guideline, just moral commitment, at a time when governments at all levels are strapped for cash.

Carlisle has just one child in a residential placement. The school will pay $15,000 more for the April-June quarter, in addition to the $15,000 already earmarked. It's too soon to say how our town and many others will proceed. When such shortfalls have occurred at DOE in the past, the Legislature has stepped in with supplemental appropriations.

I don't know why DOE targeted this program, or who made the decision. It is a large chunk of money serving relatively few children, thus, in a way, an easier cut to make. I recognize that no decision that short funds a vital program is an easy one. But I hope the moral progress of the last few decades isn't lost on our legislators and new governor.

And I hope that we taxpayers can find that empathic point of balance.


2003 The Carlisle Mosquito