The Cascade of King's Movement
Ayanna Gregory, Kabir Sehgal, and Sidwell Friends create an MLK Day to remember.
“The power of Dr. King was the opportunity to feel something you never thought you would,” activist and singer Ayanna Gregory told viewers during a virtual Sidwell Friends Martin Luther King Jr. Day program. “It was the power of energy, vibration, and frequency—the power of a movement.” That movement, the Civil Rights movement, pushed the needle on the American conversation, leading to the women’s movement, the fight for people with disabilities, and every other social crusade in the United States since. As a result, said Gregory, “Civil Rights transcended racism, because the real fight was actually for all of humanity.”
Gregory’s presentation—part call-and-response, part song, part memoir—was the culminating event to a day that saw the Sidwell Friends community in action throughout the region. There were groups of Sidwell Friends families and friends at the annual Peace March, which made its way down Martin Luther King Avenue; groups at a park cleanup in Anacostia; groups volunteering at the School’s partner organizations, like Martha’s Table and A Wider Circle; and groups who stood in solemn awe before the eponymous memorial, where King’s presence is somehow tangible. What’s more, the Sidwell Friends community’s work is ongoing, as we pursue a month of giving back to demonstrate that our efforts should never be limited to a solitary occasion and in recognition that need does not rest. (Check out the School’s MLK web page to learn more about opportunities to serve.)
For Gregory’s part, her life has been an object lesson in giving back. She is the daughter of groundbreaking comic Dick Gregory, who burst into the American zeitgeist in the 1960s by making fun of racism in his act an becoming a trailblazing activist. Dick Gregory even did advance work for Dr. King, going to places ahead of King’s visits to jumpstart conversations and critical thinking. “My father was a very dangerous man because he could not be bought,” Ayanna Gregory told the Sidwell Friends community. “Because he told the truth, he was dangerous in an America that was trying to oppress people.”
Indeed, Dick Gregory was the subject of death threats and attacks throughout Ayanna’s childhood. “In America, with all of its evils and faults, you can still reach through the forest and see the sun,” Dick Gregory once said. “But we don’t know yet whether that sun is rising or setting for our country.” These days, Ayanna Gregory is more sanguine. In a post–George Floyd world, she thinks something has shifted. “There is a conversation happening now that wasn’t happening before, and we get to tap into it,” she said. “We’re living in a time where even though we see so many examples of oppression, we are going to see the end of an era of racism and white supremacy or white fragility.”
That optimism was echoed by Kabir Sehgal, who co-wrote Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation with the late John Lewis, and who also spoke to the Sidwell Friends community during the School’s Martin Luther King Day programming. Sehgal emphasized the poignant lessons of John Lewis’s life: nonviolence and hope. He also discussed the power of forgiveness, describing a man who asked Lewis if he could travel to DC to apologize for beating Lewis 30 years earlier. Lewis had already forgiven the man, because forgiveness is not just about the offender but about freeing oneself from anger and bitterness. Still, Lewis let the man come to Washington so that the man could also have the opportunity to make amends and share in that forgiveness. In other words, said Sehgal, the antidote to the disease of racism is empathy.
Ayanna Gregory also spoke of empathy—particularly the need for empathy across difference. “America has reduced us to race, but race it just a construct,” she said. “We are all one human race.” Then, reflecting on the power of King’s work, she asked, “What revolution, movement, revelation can we start now?”
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