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February Head of School Letter: Why Diversity Matters

Thursday, February 9, 2017

At our Martin Luther King Day assembly in January, we walked in to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech playing on the screen. We’ve all heard it, or at least parts of it, countless times. It’s become so much a part of our collective consciousness that it’s easy to miss the details.

Dr. King intones, “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia….” That morning in Braemar, I tried to link the personal to the historical as I addressed the students and visiting parents. I was born in Atlanta in 1968, seven months after Dr. King was assassinated. As a child, like many kids in Atlanta, I hiked up Stone Mountain, about a 45 minute drive from my home. Stone Mountain is a giant rock, some 825 feet high. On one side is a massive sculpture of three riders on horseback: General Stonewall Jackson, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and General Robert E. Lee. It’s a monument to segregation and the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. A cross burning there in 1915 marked the Klan’s modern revival, coinciding with anti-immigrant feelings of the day. I didn’t know that as a kid, but Dr. King certainly did.

Echoes of the Civil Rights Era were heard constantly through the Atlanta that I grew up in, I explained to GUS students. There were names I shared with them, not to show off my connections, but to convey how historical personages are, in fact, real people. Ralph David Abernathy’s son Kwame was a schoolmate. Andrew Young was Atlanta’s mayor. James Orange, who stood beneath the balcony at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, was someone I met several times. His daughter, Jamida, was a close college classmate. Jamida introduced Coretta Scott King to me one day as “Aunt Coretta.” Just real people, people who stood up for what they knew was right.

I went on to talk about what it means to live in a time of great change and said that no matter someone’s political persuasion, we are all obligated to stand up for what is right. At GUS, that’s what the One Rule represents (“No student has the right to interfere with the learning or the well-being of another student or with the purpose of an activity.”). It’s our version of the Golden Rule, which in some fundamental way is what the Civil Rights Movement was all about. 

Photo: 2:48 p.m. Wednesday April 3, 1968--Outside the Lorraine Hotel, U.S. Marshall Cato Ellis served Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a temporary restraining order from a federal judge, barring them from leading another March in Memphis without court approval. Also present were top King aides are. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Bernard Lee. "We are not going to be stopped by Mace or injunctions," said Dr. King. (Barney Sellers/The Commercial Appeal)

I share all this now at the behest of several parents who heard me talk and asked that I repeat my remarks. I’ll go several steps further. February is Black History Month, and even though we only have a few students of African or African-American heritage at GUS, I would argue that Black history is our shared history. It belongs to all of us and we are all a part of it. I believe that’s true whether, like my ancestors, your people are Eastern European Jews who arrived in the United States in the late 1800s or early 1900s or your people have been on the North Shore since the 1600s, like some GUS families. American history is Black history, Asian history, LGBTQ history, Muslim and Hindu and Christian history, agnostic history and atheist history. And of course, lots more. Many of us were not educated about these histories.

At GUS, there always has been and will continue to be a place for everyone’s stories. It’s the core, the heart, of who we are as a community. GUS works because of its diversity, and we’re institutionally committed to that. Mean Well, Speak Well, Do Well. 

In that spirit, I invite any interested parents to a guided discussion on Thursday, February 16, at 8:00 AM in the Nance Room. As we all work through how to talk to our children about how to make sense of a world undergoing change, I want to hear your stories and offer some thoughts on how to, literally, “trust and go forward.” It will be an apolitical forum, honoring the fact that we are a community with a variety of beliefs. That said, I do hope we can all feel a shared sense of purpose as we work to support the GUS mission and our students.

Trust and go forward,

David Liebmann

Head of School