MLK Day speaker shows how uplifting girls and young women intersects with Dr. King's vision of equity for all
In a full theatre, Harpeth Hall all-school assembly guest speaker Delores Druilhet Morton asked the girls to stand up. Then, she started reading the names of civil rights leaders.
“Sit down when I say someone you don’t know,” she said.
She began with the big names: John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Phillip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall. With a number of girls still standing, Ms. Morton transitioned to others: Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Daisy Bates, Septima Poinsette Clark, Claudette Colvin.
“It’s always when I get to the names of women that people usually take their seats,” she said.
Every January, across the nation, people celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a charismatic and influential leader whose name and teachings have become synonymous with the civil rights movement. But, the women who led the movement alongside Dr. King are often less talked about. Women including Jo Ann Robinson, a heroine of the Montgomery bus boycott; Claudette Colvin, who was arrested at age 15 for refusing to give up her seat on a crowded, segregated bus; and Nashville’s own Diane Nash, who challenged the mayor on the courthouse steps to desegregate the lunch counters.
In fact, author and activist Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, is often quoted as saying that “women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” The women who joined in Dr. King’s dream inspired him, challenged him, and pushed him to pursue equity for all.
“He knew that women’s rights were civil rights,” Ms. Morton said. “... that every small step can lead to big change.”
Guided by the historic work of Dr. King, today Ms. Morton looks to inspire change in her role as CEO of Step Up, a mentorship nonprofit that supports girls in fulfilling their potential by empowering them to become confident, college-bound, career-focused, and ready to join the next generation of professional women.
Ms. Morton visited Harpeth Hall this week to speak at an all-school assembly about how her work of uplifting girls and young women intersects with Dr. King’s vision of inclusion.
“We do the work we do because even though there have been advances for women, the inequities still exist,” Ms. Morton said. “By giving girls the tools, resources, and connections they need to pursue their dreams of success, we are one-by-one reducing inequity and pushing our communities, our country, and the world toward equity for all.”
As part of that pursuit, Ms. Morton led Harpeth Hall students through an exercise to help them connect with their hopes and concerns. She presented 16 fill-in-the-blank prompts for each girl to complete about herself. Prompts such as: “I love …,” “I am happiest when …”, “I used to be afraid of …,” and “I will be remembered by …”
After a short time for reflection, Ms. Morton invited students to share what they wrote and how it made them feel. The responses were poignant.
“Through this, I was trying to figure out what it means to be me and how I relate to the world,” one 7th grade student said.
A sophomore contextualized the experience this way: “It made me think about myself and what I want to do — not what others want from me.”
For Ms. Morton, the responses — whether shared out loud with their classmates or held close to themselves — underscored the potential and promise of every young woman in the room. An exercise like this, she said, is about developing self-awareness and feeling connected to yourself.
“Before you determine where you want to go in life, you need to understand who you are and who you want to be,” she said. “You need to understand your values, your strengths, your talents. Understanding yourself is an early step on your way to defining success for yourself.”
And, as the women civil rights leaders show, once a girl has defined success for herself the opportunities to make a meaningful difference are there to pursue — whether it is a single moment or an influential movement in history.