Calling for a symphony of brotherhood rather than the jangled discord of our nation, Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., has asked the Chamberlain School District in South Dakota for a gesture of hope and healing “towards fulfilling my father’s dream.”
King has sent a letter to the Chamberlain School Board requesting that the Honor Song be played at graduation ceremonies. For the last five years, the school board has refused to allow the song at graduation saying it is against the school’s tradition.
On behalf of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King wrote that the Honor Song conveys positive messages, especially when sung in the Lakota language. “It would allow non-Native students to express their respect and goodwill towards Native students, just as Native students have frequently joined in singing songs that originate in cultures different from their own.”
At this time, the school board has not yet reviewed the letter and is not yet ready to comment, according to the school’s superintendent Debra Johnson. Last year, Johnson and High School Principal Allan Bertram made the decision to incorporate the Honor Song in a special in-school assembly.
At one of last year’s school board meetings, the board announced that the conversation about the song was over for good, said James Cadwell, who has worked for five years to move the district towards allowing the song at graduation.
Cadwell has received more than 200 Native and non-Native signatures on a petition to allow the Honor Song. His efforts caught the eye of Lynn Hart, who received the 1990 Martin Luther King Award for bringing about Martin Luther King Day and Native American Day in South Dakota.
In 1989, Hart, a Yankton tribal member and African American, approached Gov. George Michelson, R-SD, who designated 1990 as the Year of Reconciliation. Mickelson was killed in a plane accident in 1993, and in a New York Times obituary, Mickelson was said to have “sat with Sioux leaders and smoked the sacred pipe” several times.
The day Hart learned about the denial of the Chamberlain School Board happened to be the day of Nelson Mandela’s death and the symbolism saddened him deeply. On that day, he remembers saying, “You know what? We have a serious racial problem in South Dakota and it’s not going away. This is 2014, and this issue shouldn’t be going on. We are a forgotten race of people.”
Officials from the Chamberlain School Board have repeatedly insisted that they have worked to bring unity to the students. Some staff members have stated they support the cause, but refuse to go on record. Cadwell said there is support for the song in the Native and non-Native community, but the school has insisted it will continue as it has. It remains to be seen if the letter from King will have any effect.
Hart has written to the school board and requested a response to her letter. His letter recalls a quote from one of his correspondences with Gov. Mickelson, who said that Natives and non-Natives, “have been strangers too long.”
Hart has asked the board, “Why are you voting against a golden opportunity to promote reconciliation and cultural awareness… Voters of Chamberlain: Your school board is successfully teaching an outdated subject called racism and bigotry.”
According to a press release from Cadwell, the school district’s Native population is on the rise with 38 percent Native students in the district, while 33 percent of the 2012-2013 graduates are Native American. In the elementary school, the Native student population exceeds 50 percent in some classrooms.
Hart ended his letter, “In the spirit of Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota nations in America, I hope that you will realize the action you are taking…”