Preaching the legacy of a civil rights icon


In celebration of Black History Month, Diamond Bar High School students in the International Baccalaureate program honored Black history through a presentation of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on March 4.

The event took place during third and fourth periods in the gym and opened with an introduction to King’s work, orated by Principal Reuben Jones. Following live readings of the letter by the student body, junior Olivia James performed her winning speech from the Stand and Deliver Oratorical contest on biracial identity.

“Through the live readings I was able to see how great of a writer MLK was. Hearing his words aloud from my peers really emphasized the purpose of his writing and allowed me to reflect on the history,” junior Virginia Lee said via Instagram. 

Once the readings had concluded, several interactive activities relating to the Letter from a Birmingham Jail reading were set up in the gym, including modified games such as Jenga and Wheel of Fortune.

“[They were] just a little bit interactive to make [sure] students get a chance to participate in the meaning of the letter,” DBHS math and Theory of Knowledge teacher Dena Lordi said. “We have two students from art history that [set up] a little station to project works of art from the 1960s, the period of time when the letter was written, and talk about the art as it relates to the Civil Rights movement.”

A part of the Creativity, Activity and Service program that IB students partake in, the topic of the event was chosen by Lordi and based on her college experiences with outdoor readings during Shakespeare festivals.

“On any given day there would be a copy of the text set out with a microphone and a stand, and people would walk up and they would read part of the play aloud,” Lordi said. “I thought we could do something like that here.”

The event details and scheduling were mostly handled by the IB students, who were organized in three different teams relating to the event organization, event themes and lunch time activities.

Junior Nichole Godfrey, who assisted in theme organization, said her group examined the letter for important ideas and came up with ways to accurately portray them.

“Currently, in Theory of Knowledge, we are learning how knowledge is something that many are hurt by or afraid to learn from,” Godfrey said via Instagram. “This relates really well to the letter, because it addresses the systematic racism that occurred because no one was willing to acknowledge the knowledge that all races are equal, and they were unwilling to open themselves to new knowledge.”

As part of the reader organization team, junior Joanna Jin said that her division worked with the Black Student Union and senior IB students to plan the order of the speeches and overall flow of the reading.

“I think that the Open Letter Project covers a really important part of our daily lives and I’m excited for it to start at our school and hopefully continue on after our IB class,” Jin said via Instagram. “I’m really grateful that we were able to organize this with the help of Ms. Lordi, Dr. Jones, BSU and everyone else involved.”

Aside from the IB program and other student organizations, such as the DBHS Performing Arts programs, the BSU and USB, that collaborated to organize the event, students from various classes, such as Advanced Placement United States History, were invited to join the reading of the letter and explain what it meant to them. 

“I hope that the students will be able to learn that MLK Day is not just a day off from school—rather it is a day to honor his legacy,” Lee said. “It would be a goal of mine for students to learn why a month is dedicated to black history and why we have a day off of school on MLK Day.”