During a daylong tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., a Memphis student took the stage in front of hundreds of onlookers. How did she see herself living out the legacy of King? Through school discipline reform.

“I’ve been organizing since I was 15 years old,” said Janiya Douglas, 18, a senior at White Station High School. “I want to tell you about the school-to-prison pipeline and how students are being suspended, over-disciplined, and led into the juvenile justice system.”

Janiya spoke from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel — now the National Civil Rights Museum — in the very place King was assassinated on this day, April 4, 50 years ago. The commemoration Wednesday was the culmination of dozens of events to honor King, and civil rights leaders, musicians, and experts took the stage throughout the day.

“I’m here to say why I’m most passionate about this,” Janiya said. “It’s not right that black and brown students are not given the same opportunities to education.”

Her words aren’t too far from that of King, who was famously passionate about education. King once said: “I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life.”

While Janiya spoke as part of a presentation by Stand for Children, a national advocacy group, other students in Memphis and beyond skipped school to be a part of the day’s events.

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Jamea Mathis brought her children to the commemoration because she felt it “was a huge moment for the city.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

Jamea Mathis, who recently moved her family to Memphis from Wisconsin, said the significance of Wednesday led her to check her 12-year-old son out of Treadwell Middle School early.

“I wanted us to be a part of this big, important moment,” Mathis said. “I hope my son leaves with a better understanding of who Dr. King was, of himself, of peace.”

Her son, David Keeler, said he had indeed learned something about King’s legacy.

“I knew he was in the civil right, but didn’t think about how Martin Luther King really impacted me, like personally, until today,” Keeler said. “He really tried to help us out.”

Eazyria Love, 9, sat outside of the museum all day with her mother, Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love.

Eazyria said she had learned at Delano Elementary School that King was assassinated in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, but when asked if she had learned anything new about King’s legacy, she said:

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Eazyria Love, 9.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

“He was a strong leader and fought for our rights. He brought peace. But there are still problems. Maybe I can help.”

The 9-year-old echoed how Janiya had concluded her speech at the balcony hours earlier.

“Youth are not the future, they are [the] now,” Janiya told the crowd. “I am 18, and I plan to dedicate my life to ensuring that every child has an education in America.”