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Making Principles of Peace Part of the Curriculum in Raytown School District Folds Essay Contest into Annual MLK Celebration

A man and woman read essays. Dorinda Nicholson, left, and Rev. Pat Jackson read some of the 374 essays from Raytown students for the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. (Kelly Cordingley | Flatland)
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2 minute read

For nearly two decades, Queen Mother Maxine McFarlane closed Raytown’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration with the hymn, “Pass It On.” Though she recently moved to Florida, the legacy she created to honor the slain civil rights leader remains alive and well in the city — and its schools.

For the past five years, Raytown school children have written essays about King. This year, Assistant Superintendent Anthony Moore integrated the essays into the social studies and English curriculum as an assignment for students in grades three through 12.

“It is very important,” he said, “because I wanted it to be reflective of not so much just Dr. King, but the principles he believed in: justice, equality, love, peace, brotherhood, and harmony, racial harmony, especially at such a time the country seems to be in such a divisive time since the election.”

With the integration into the curriculum, nearly 4,000 students have entered their essays into the annual writing contest, more than doubling the number of submissions from last year. Winners will be announced at the 20th annual celebration, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Raytown South High School, 8211 Sterling Ave.

The celebration originated at Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church after McFarlane broached the idea to its then-pastor, the Rev. Tom Blaney. The church’s current pastor, the Rev. Pat Jackson, has picked up that mantle and also serves as president of the Raytown Community Interfaith Alliance.

When the event outgrew its home at the church, it moved to Raytown High School for a year, then to Graceway church, and finally to Raytown South High School.

McFarlane had a reputation for uniting the community through her activism and through her signature song. McFarlane started the event to bridge Raytown’s racial divide.

“We’re all one people,” she said. “And at that time, nobody talked to each other, and I didn’t think that was God’s plan.”

While Jackson plans to honor McFarlane and her late daughter, “Sister” Kathleen Davis, at this year’s event, McFarlane’s great-granddaughter, Samara Smith, has inherited the singing duties.

“It’s a high calling and a high honor,” Smith said. “In the church community, there are singers — they could have asked anybody to do it — and I feel really special that they entrusted me to do it.”

The essay portion of the event is also special, Jackson said, in that the ripples McFarlane created have now touched the lives of thousands of children. The number of entrants this year thrilled McFarlane, who took it as a sign that perhaps King’s message is finally sinking in.

The interfaith alliance selects the winners from a batch of semifinal essays sent over from the district. This year, more than a dozen alliance members pored over 374 essays.

Dorinda Nicholson was particularly impressed that the middle school essays she judged went beyond just quoting the “I Have a Dream” speech.

“A lot of them talked about bullying and how that affected them in school,” she said, “and they felt that, with the example that Rev. King had shown with his life, that they would speak up and no longer be silent.”

There are nine winners, but Jackson also celebrates the top 100 students by printing their names in the event booklet. This year, he had to expand that to 104 to include ties.

Yet Moore hopes the exercise proves longer lasting than the essay contest.

“We do hope for students that, what they write about, this is recognizing you don’t have to always agree with a person to treat them with fairness and respect and love,” he said.

— Kelly Cordingley is the Digital Coordinator at Kansas City Public Television. Follow her on Twitter @KellyCordingley.

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