High School Play Honors Students Who Fought For MLK Holiday

Jan 20, 2020
Originally published on January 20, 2020 6:26 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's talk about the holiday we're marking today. It was actually a long struggle to get Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognized as a public holiday. Almost 40 years ago, a group of public high school students helped lead the fight here in California. Now, a new generation of teens at that same school are taking inspiration from the efforts of their predecessors.

Chloe Veltman from member station KQED reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: On stage, it's the year 1981 in "The Apollos," a new stage play written, produced and performed by students from Oakland Technical High School.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE APOLLOS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Please stand and cast your votes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yea.

VELTMAN: A huddle of nerve-wracked teens waits to hear if state lawmakers will vote to pass Assembly Bill 312, the piece of legislation they've spent the last three years fighting for.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE APOLLOS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I lost count. It looked close. Shoot, it could go either way.

VELTMAN: The play is based on the real-life story of an earlier generation of Oakland Tech students who campaigned hard to get MLK Day recognized as a California holiday years before the national holiday was signed into law in 1983. That class called themselves The Apollos after the NASA space program.

KAREN KENNEDY: Which means, we who reach for the stars.

VELTMAN: That's Karen Kennedy. She was one of the core group of five students who led the charge under the supervision of their teacher, Tay McArthur.

KENNEDY: He was so strict.

VELTMAN: McArthur's still around, but he's frail. Kennedy says the idea to push for the holiday came up one day in McArthur's government class. It was 1978. And the students were learning about the legislative process.

KENNEDY: And Mr. McArthur was going on with his long, long lectures. And one of the questions came up, well, why isn't there a holiday for any people of color?

VELTMAN: The question sent Kennedy and her fellow Apollos on a long and challenging journey, driven by their desire to honor Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated a decade earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop...

(CHEERING)

KING: ...And I don't mind.

VELTMAN: The Apollos wrote letters to lawmakers, knocked on doors to drum up signatures for their petition and made many, many early morning trips to Sacramento in McArthur's car.

KENNEDY: And he even had his license plate named the Apollos.

VELTMAN: Kennedy says some politicians were receptive to the teenage lobbyists, but others pushed back.

KENNEDY: And every time we made a positive gain, there was a setback. But we never gave up.

VELTMAN: Current Oakland Tech student Samuel Getachew is a writer and performer in the school's new play about the Apollos. He's also a proud activist.

SAMUEL GETACHEW: I was one of the lead organizers for a walkout in solidarity with the students from the Parkland shooting.

VELTMAN: Getachew hopes his fellow students will find the Apollos' story as much of a call to action as he does.

GETACHEW: Mr. McArthur always taught his students that there was no excuse that lay in their age for them being unable to do what they wanted to do.

VELTMAN: And he wants parents in the audience to know their kids are more capable than they may think.

For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "LUV JONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.