Free exhibit at penitentiary honors King, prompts talk about civil rights progress

Shara Dae Howard
January 17, 2020 - 12:06 pm
Community leaders, students and professional actors read excerpts from King's landmark 1963 texts "Letters from Birmingham Jail."

Shara Dae Howard/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — An exhibit at Eastern State Penitentiary commemorates Martin Luther King Day while attempting to connect a community with its past and with goals for the future. 

In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," community leaders, students and professional actors read excerpts from King's landmark 1963 texts three times a day. Following the readings, visitors respond in an informal moderated discussion.

"The goal is to create awareness of how there are still issues that are unsolved following the civil rights movement," said Menkia Dirkson, an academic who participates in the exhibit.

Lauren Zalut, director of education and tour programs, says covering the civil rights movement is an integral part of the penitentiary's mission to connect the past and the present.

"As we come together as a community over Dr. King weekend, we're really thinking about how far have we come since the civil rights movement? And how much futher do we need to go?" Zalut said.

Zalut says she hopes the exhibit will encourage conversation among young people. 

Justin Griggs, 16, who sings in the exhibit, says he wanted to be participate because he feels racial tensions today are running high.

"Stuff like this played a major role in my life, because I dealt with some racism when I was younger," he said.

Griggs says, as a thank-you to King, he is using his music to educate his peers.

"Black history is important, and they didn't teach us this in school," he said. "Every African American kid should know their history."

But Griggs is hopeful and says exhibits like this one can not only bring about change but can also bring communitites together.

The exhibit is free and runs Saturday, Jan. 18, through Monday, Jan. 20.