Happy John Stokes Day

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Goodbye open skies of summer. Hello fluorescent-lighted classrooms.

Although kids are excited to see their friends, or wear a new outfit on the first day of school, we all hear the grumbling about returning to earlier wake-ups, earlier bed times, homework, tests, quizzes, required reading and projects.

I say we turn those grumbles into gratitude.

I propose naming the first day of school John Stokes Day.

In 1951, four years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and 12 years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, John Stokes helped organize a student strike at his all-black high school in Virginia.

The strike was a response to horrific conditions they endured at Moton High School. The school building, which was designed to accommodate 180 students, had 450 enrolled. The overcrowded, dilapidated building lacked indoor plumbing, or central heat.  Like all over the South, the segregated black schools were separate, but a far cry from equal.

The students planned the strike in complete secrecy and when the day arrived, the entire student body walked out of school and down to the superintendent’s office requesting a meeting. The superintendent refused to meet with the students, declaring them all truant.  But the strike evolved into a lawsuit and was the only student-led event that became one of the five court cases under the historic Brown et al versus Topeka Board of Education et al.

Listen to the interview online with NPR when Stokes recalls the strike and how he felt mixed emotions when he heard the Supreme Court ruling three years later.

“What bothered me,” Stokes recalls, was the phrase, “With deliberate speed. Deliberate speed? My lord, they can take forever to make these changes.”

Stokes went on to become an educator himself; a teacher and eventually a principal in Baltimore, where he dedicated his life to helping the poorest children and families, both black and white “realize a sense of responsibility to elevate themselves to a higher level of educational excellence.”

Fifty years later Stokes wrote a book called “Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown and Me.”  The book is geared towards 9-12-year-olds, although any adult reader would also glean important reminders and learn new things.

My favorite thing Stokes says can be applied to anyone, anywhere attempting to accomplish anything large or small: “Forget the naysayers who say it cannot be done.”

Stokes’ book may not be required reading for school, but it should be required reading for life.

And, what if every mom everywhere, wrote on a note and stuck it in her child’s lunch the first day of school that said,

“Forget the naysayers who say it cannot be done.”

Assuming no one forgets their lunch on the kitchen counter or in the car or bus; what a great way to remind our kids that thankful and inspired is the best way to feel on the first day of school.

Happy John Stokes Day.










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