This year’s celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will focus on the themes of restoration, mercy and community service. In the spirit of celebrating MLK Day as a national day of service — “a day on, not a day off” — students will not have classes on January 17 but will gather in the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center for a day of programming and a service-oriented activity. On January 18 at 7 p.m., the school will welcome Reginald Dwayne Betts, author, lawyer, poet and founder of Freedom Reads, a first-of-its-kind organization working to radically transform access to literature in prison, as part of its 2021-22 Speaker Series.
LaDarius Drew, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, planned this year’s events and noted that the themes were inspired in part by the 2021 all-school reading of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, the best-selling book by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving," Stevenson wrote. "The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion."
An advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system
According to his website: Betts transformed himself from a 16-year old kid sentenced to nine-years in prison to a critically acclaimed writer and graduate of Yale Law School. He has written three acclaimed collections of poetry, the recently published Felon, Bastards of the Reagan Era, which won the PEN New England Award for poetry, and Shahid Reads His Own Palm.
His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, is the story of a young man confined in the worst prisons in the state of Virginia, where solitary confinement, horrific conditions, and the constant violence threatened to break his humanity. Instead, Betts used the time to turn himself into a poet, a scholar, and an advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system. Betts was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” in November. His books are available to students, faculty and the community in the Tisch Family Library.
“With much help from fellow history teacher Steve Gritti, I saw Betts as someone who can understand Stevenson in a way that is practical and digestible for our students,” Drew said. “Betts is someone who has done the work of self-reflection to envision himself as a contributor to the world, and not just a person who served time in prison. He acknowledges that he is more than what his worst actions were, and he grew from forgiving his past self. Betts’s realm of influence, from prison, to Yale, to TPACC, will help us understand how rewarding it is to reckon with your impact in the world, and how there’s always an opportunity to be a force for good.”
Starting a journey to restoration through service
For the day of programming, Drew will invite the community to listen to the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech Dr. King delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968 — the day before he was assassinated — and the statement made the next day by then-U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, announcing Dr. King’s death and speaking about his character.
Students also will assemble bags of essentials for residents of homeless shelters in the region, and consider the ways we can restore others, or start someone on their journey to restoration, through service. “Even though we are in the midst of a pandemic, there are people who are currently homeless, jobless, family-less, because of circumstances that are out of their control,” Drew said.
Photo credit: Image used with permission, The King Center, Intellectual Properties Management, Inc. (IPM), Licensing Manager of the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.