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Posted on Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Ann Arbor 8th-graders prepare for Washington D.C. performance honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

By Danielle Arndt

As the nation prepares to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Monday, music students at one Ann Arbor middle school are practicing for an upcoming event at the nation's capital that celebrates the famous civil rights activist.

Eighth-graders at Tappan Middle School will experience history, as they perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for thousands of people this June.

About 180 Tappan band, choir and orchestra students are expected to participate in an hour-long concert June 13 with musicians from around the country.

Tappan will be the only school performing at this particular concert, which is one of many events the U.S. National Parks Service is sponsoring throughout 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

Tappan eighth-graders will stare out at the crowd gathered on the National Mall well-aware that one of the most powerful speeches in U.S. history was delivered from those very steps.

But for Tappan band director Frederick Smith, who helped organize students' involvement in the event, the concert connects his past and present.

The son of a preacher

King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 spurred the American civil rights movement to new heights. And two years later, in 1965, when the movement was at its peak, Ann Arbor's Smith met King in Montgomery, Ala.

Smith was just 6 years old when King and thousands of protesters stopped for rest and refreshments at Montgomery's Mount Zion AME Zion Church. Smith's father, the Rev. Percy Smith Jr., was a preacher at the church, and Smith and his siblings tagged along the night of the third Selma to Montgomery Voters' Rights March.

Smith helped serve water to the protesters that night, and found himself handing a glass to Dr. King.

"I didn't realize how significant it was at the time," Smith said. "I just remember there were wall-to-wall people coming up the street. They had closed the street and there were lights and torches."


Tappan Middle School band director Frederick Smith conducts his eighth-grade students through a piece during class Thursday. They will begin rehearsing music for the June MLK performance in a few months.

Melanie Maxwell |

Smith said he has several more vivid memories of growing up in the south during the civil rights movement.

His father was the first African American to run for U.S. Congress in Alabama. And later, Percy Smith Jr. was the first African American to run for Montgomery mayor, Frederick Smith said. He said there was an assassination attempt made on his father's life in front of him and his siblings.

"That's not something you'll forget very easily that's for sure," Frederick Smith said.

He added his family spent days picketing for the desegregation of the education system and he was one of the first black kids in Montgomery to go to an all-white school.

"I still think it was well worth every effort and struggle that was made," he said.

Culminating lessons

Smith is eager for his students to experience performing at the Lincoln Memorial.

Smith initially received an email from a D.C. musician looking for groups to participate in the concert. After some initial hesitation, Smith thought, "Why not?"

"What an opportunity for the kids," he said.

So Smith approached Tappan social studies teacher Elaine Richmond to see if the school could rearrange the eighth-graders annual Washington D.C. trip to coordinate with the concert date so the students could perform.

Tappan eighth-graders have been traveling to D.C. at the end of the school year since about 1990, Richmond said. The traditional trip also includes tours of Gettysburg, the White House, the Smithsonian museums, national monuments and the Holocaust museum.

For years, Tappan students have been exposed to King's life and impact and images of his 1963 speech through annual MLK assemblies at the school, which Richmond coordinates. Smith has served as a speaker for these assemblies a number of times, sharing his stories and insights from growing up during the civil rights movement.

By performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, "the students can actually have that feeling of what it was like ... and understand the magnitude of Dr. King's speech and why it is important to the history of our country," Richmond said.

The June performance not only will make a lifelong impression on Tappan's students, but it will serve as a culminating lesson on American history and on King's messages of hope and equal rights, Richmond said.

"Because it's not about just one race or religion or ethnic background, it's about being open to our differences and joining together," she said.

"… Somehow we are all interrelated and … skin, what makes for a difference in appearance between me and you, if you cut down deep enough, all of it looks the same," Smith added.

Tappan's band, orchestra and choir students all will perform together at the Lincoln Memorial. Directors also are brainstorming how those students attending the trip but not in one of Tappan's music programs can have a role in the concert performance, Smith said.

Eighth-grade clarinet player Nikhita Jacob said she is very excited to be able to perform for so many people and "show them how well our band can play."

While King's speech didn't affect Jacob directly, she said, "It changed how we all live today."

Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at



Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 9:56 p.m.

This is extremely inspiring and will be a great opportunity for all involved.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:10 p.m.

OMG! Two years to late for our child. Congrats Bonnie on a wonderful trip of a lifetime. Wish ours was still in 8th. What a fun trip. Good luck.

Nora S.

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 2:51 p.m.

Thank you for the lovely article. This will be a trip to remember! However, it's a shame that the printed version of the paper did not have the same content. Could there be a re-print so the students can have a momento from their hometown paper?


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 2:15 p.m.

Congratulations and best wishes on your tour to Washington, D.C. Have a fun time.