Dressed in minister's robes and looking mature beyond his nine years, Travis Washington took the stage at Hebbville Elementary School to recite an excerpt from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
"Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last," shouted the fourth-grader, raising his fists above his head as the crowd broke into applause.
All of the grades were represented at Hebbville yesterday as the school celebrated the birth of King with a program that included song, dance, poetry and young Travis' emotional recitation.
"This is not a day for rest or play," said a solemn Jonathan Wilkins, 7, as he stood on stage. "This is a day to study and to prepare for the victory to come!"
The performances, especially the recitation of King's famous speech, held special meaning for Dean Evans, the second-grade teacher who chaired the program for the school. Evans was among those who marched for civil rights in Washington in 1963, "and whenever I hear that speech, chills just run up my body," she says. "Because I was there."
The program at Hebbville may also have had special meaning for the 70 or so special-education students who attend the school and who were included in the activities. One of the songs was performed by the Hebbville Signing Singers, who use sign language.
The celebration of the slain civil rights leader's birthday today is not new to Baltimore County, where most schools will set aside time this week to educate students on his teachings. Jan. 20 is the federal holiday that honors King.
"Kids need to have heroes, especially in these kind of times," says Sharon Attaway, vice principal of Hebbville, where 85 percent of the 370 students are black. But Attaway stresses that King's message is important for all children to hear.
"He is a role model to African-American students, but his message should go out to all races and religions," she says.