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Any good teacher knows students can start to tune out even the best of lessons if they're delivered the same way year after year.
So this year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Brownell-Talbot School in Omaha is shaking up its exploration of the slain civil rights leader's message of peace and racial tolerance.
The school's commemoration will include a 10-minute excerpt from a play called “Anne and Emmett,” which features an imaginary conversation between two teenage victims of intolerance and hatred: Anne Frank and Emmett Till.
Anne is known to millions who have read the diary she wrote before her death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 at age 15.
But fewer know as much of Emmett's story. The 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago was abducted, beaten, shot and dumped in the Tallahatchie River after allegedly whistling at a white woman during a visit to relatives in Mississippi in 1955.
The incident and the events that followed Emmett's death are considered a catalyst for the civil rights movement. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that his mutilated body be returned and displayed in an open casket. A photograph of his body ran in Jet magazine. Four months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. She later said she was thinking about Emmett.
“They went viral, as much as they could in 1955,” Michael Recker, a French teacher at Brownell-Talbot, said of the photos.
Recker advises Brownell-Talbot's Hitchcock House, which was responsible for organizing this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day program.
Honoring King's legacy is important, Recker said. But he knows schools run the risk of losing kids' attention when it comes to annual events.
“It is very important in the school business to keep these sorts of things fresh,” he said.
Recker started thinking about Emmett. In 2009 he had participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on landmarks in American history at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. The seminar focused on delta culture: the blues, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 — and Emmett Till.
Recker presented the idea to the students, and they were enthusiastic.
He ordered Delta State's traveling pictorial history exhibit on the Till case, which now is on display at the school. It documents the trial of the two white men accused of killing Emmett. The men were acquitted in September 1955. Months later, they admitted in an article published in Look magazine that they had killed the teenager.
“Anne and Emmett,” which so far has been in limited production, was written by Janet Langhart Cohen, a former broadcast journalist and wife of former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, who calls King her mentor.
Langhart Cohen said she has been holding the play back, refining it. She identifies closely with both Anne and Emmett, she said, and she wanted to do them justice. An African-American, she also is of Jewish descent, as is her husband. She loved Anne Frank's diary, which she read when she was about the same age as its author.
Langhart Cohen said she initially had reservations about Brownell-Talbot's request to do an excerpt of the play. But then she learned Recker planned to perform it on King's birthday. And that he understood what she was trying to say, about the need to know history in order to avoid repeating it.
“The play is a call to action for everyone,” Langhart Cohen said. “When they see injustice, when they see intolerance ... not to be a silent witness and walk away. They have to do something. That's what I want for the students and for the play.”
The program will be presented to students in grades five through 12. Cathy Tibbels, a Brownell-Talbot spokeswoman, said the school has had meetings with students and provided some preparation for Monday's program. Officials also have sent an email to parents, offering them the option of having their children sit out if they're uncomfortable and inviting them to continue the discussion at home. So far, however, none have opted out.
Monday's 45-minute program, which is not open to the public, also will include an excerpt from the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” featuring the late Till-Mobley. They hope to connect with Langhart Cohen via Skype.
In addition to the Delta State display, Brownell-Talbot also has posted clippings of trial coverage that ran at the time in The World-Herald and the Omaha Star. The clippings include a report from a speech that Till-Mobley, then known as Mamie Bradley, gave at a rally in Omaha in October 1955, shortly after the trial.
At the rally, she said her son's murder could be a turning point in race relations in America. “Don't feel sorry for my boy or for me,” she said. “He has done his job, and mine has just begun.”
Sydney Woods, a Brownell-Talbot junior who visited the exhibit with her AP history class last week, said the local clippings brought the case home. “You realize it wasn't just a Mississippi matter,” she said.
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