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January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King Jr. Day: 'That Was Just The Way It Was Then'

TRAVERSE CITY — Many times it’s hard to make history relevant to younger generations, but it’s different when the topics include the Civil Rights Era and Martin Luther King Jr., local teachers said.

“There’s a lot of footage and video,” said Ben Zenner, who teaches ninth grade U.S. History at Traverse City’s West Senior High School. “Students engage when they can see the violence in Birmingham, fire-bombed buses and people bleeding and being beaten.”

Students often are stunned to try to comprehend that era and the hatred that spewed from people who blew up buses simply because blacks and whites rode together, he added.

“One big thing my student had trouble wrapping their heads around was understanding that was just the way it was then,” Zenner said.

He attributes that relative astonishment to two reasons: They didn’t grow up in that era; and they grew up in the northern United States.

“Martin Luther King Jr. Day reminds us of the civil rights issue and it gives us time to focus on that,” he said.

Today is the fourth year Traverse City Area Public Schools closed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday first observed nationwide in 1986.

The TCAPS began closing school on the federal holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader in 2011, after filmmaker Michael Moore offered to raise funds to buy new seats for Lars Hockstad Auditorium in Central Grade School if they did so.

Michigan students are introduced to the histories of slavery, the Civil War, civil rights movement and King in elementary grades as part of state curriculum requirements. In eighth grade, they take a more in-depth look at slavery, while ninth graders dig deeper into the civil rights movement.

On Tuesday, Zenner plans to discuss stereotypes and discrimination. Other upcoming topics will include: the case of Emmet Till, an African-American 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a 21-year-old white woman; the impact of the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown V. Board of Education ruling that declared all school segregation laws unconstitutional across the nation; the Montgomery bus boycotts; the Selma and Birmingham marches the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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