Celebration and Education

Right before entering the second floor east wing of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, a message in black marker is handwritten on a white board, and it reads, “Dr. King had a dream- What’s your dream?” This year’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History incorporated interactive events to enhance the learning experience throughout its weekend of activities.

The weekend celebration started on Saturday, Jan 15. and continued through King’s birthday on Monday. Among the activities were the Greensboro Lunch Counter sit-in simulation, a Dr. King dramatic presentation, Civil Rights Movement singing and a roundtable discussion with Freedom Ride veterans. It was a time of fun and enjoyment but an educational experience as well.

“This is a great opportunity for us to celebrate, but also an opportunity for us to learn,” says Brent D. Glass, director of the museum.

The student sit-in simulation at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter featured the four North Carolina A&T student-activists with audience participation. Dr. King’s words in dramatic presentation placed listeners back in the time period between 1955-1968 when the leader was at the height of his service.

 Participants also sang the soulful tunes that accompanied the movements of the period such as “I‘m on My Way to Freedom Land.” One former Freedom Rider, Dion Diamond said that music was significant “in regards of helping to survive.”

 Azania Dunge does character interpretation for the American History Museum. For almost two years, she has been playing the role of a North Carolina A&T student named Diane Lawson. Dressed in 1960s attire, Dunge entered the second floor east wing holding a picket sign and chanting statements such as, “Make America great! Desegregate!”

 After a training session on how to dress, react and protect oneself she chose four volunteers to be sit-in protestors while the rest of the audience acted as the resistance. Dunge believes that involving the audience in this manner has a greater impact on how people learn history.

“Having an actual person of the time makes a big difference by people putting themselves in the historical time period,” said Dunge.

Dunge mentions clearing historical misconceptions as one of the significant impacts of the interactive presentations. She recalls such situations as one man thinking that only blacks participated in the sit-ins when both whites and blacks participated. In another instance, she encountered a young man who believed being nonviolent made a person a “push over” until he role played as one of the protestors.

“You just have to experience it to really get the full effect of it,” Dunge says.

 Xavier Carnegie, another character interpreter, performed the words of Dr. King in dramatic presentation. He views interactivity as an opportunity to connect with the audience.

 “When I do the presentation, I get to look and see how people are reacting, and at the end, I get to talk with some people,” says Carnegie. “It’s interesting to get their stories and their views on how important he [King] was and what he did to help them in their lives or touch them in their lives.”

From a spectator’s perspective, the interactive presentations had more of an enduring effect than traditional lectures and reading on such people as Alexandria, Va. resident Joanne Olson.

“When you can involve people more, it leaves a lasting impression more than if you just sit and hear something or if you’re just reading,” says Olson referring to the activities.

 Olson came to the museum Saturday afternoon with her husband for the Freedom Riders roundtable discussion but arrived early enough to watch the Dr. King presentation. Feeling inspired by King’s emotional words and facial expressions, she says: “I like the interactive.”

 Along with observing the national holiday which honors King’s life and work, the Museum of American History stresses the importance of recognizing the lesser known Civil Rights activists.

“It’s very fitting that we recognize and celebrate Martin Luther King on his birthday,” says Glass. “It’s also important that we recognize the ordinary people who stepped forward from their classrooms, from their streets, from their homes and did the extraordinary things 50 years ago to make this country a better place.”

The student sit-ins program at the museum, where the original section of the counter is preserved, happens every weekend and conveniently accommodated the holiday schedule. Dunge, the program facilitator, explained that people know about the major pioneers like Dr. King and Rosa Park but don’t know the names of the many youth activists including the Greensboro Four who integrated the Woolworth lunch counter; Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond.

The Freedom Riders discussion also highlighted a group of unknown, but significant and still-living activists. Miles Hirocawa, 15, attended the program and gained a greater understanding of the riders’ experience and purpose after listening to each of their stories.

“I learned a lot from it, especially personal experiences that I might have not known about,” Hirocawa states. “I know more about why they did it, and it makes it more admirable.”

King’s birthday is a federal holiday in which most businesses and schools are closed. Many people use the third Monday in January as a day off, but the Olsons make an effort to commemorate Dr. King, and Joanne believes everyone should do the same.

“When we have a national holiday, we need to observe what that stands for, so we try to find something that relates to his [King] life to do on that day,” said Olson.

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