As the fourth-graders at Martin Luther King Jr. Lab School cut and placed the mosaic tiles for their library’s new mural, they were fitting together pieces of a painful history some of their parents and grandparents know first-hand: the struggle for the desegregation of schools. 

The first phase of the mural, titled “Pieces of a Dream,” was presented to the public on April 19. In this part, waves of water roll down a mountain to quash the flames below, and silver chimes peal from a bell in the distance. Up close, one sees that the waves are civil rights marchers and the flames are those of racism and injustice. The snow-capped mountain represents the mountaintop of Dr. King’s famous speech, said artist-in-residence Kiela Smith-Upton. “Water rolled down from the mountaintop and put out the fires of so the bell of freedom could ring.” That bell, at one end of the mural, rings with two quotes often used by Dr. King: “All men are created equal” and “The goal of education is intelligence plus character.” The second one, said Ms. Smith-Upton, is used often within the school. The face of Dr. King, drawn by Martin Soto, a colleague of Ms. Smith-Upton, looks down upon the mural and the entire library.

A border of small ceramic tiles created by first-graders forms the lower border of the piece. “The fourth-graders really shepherded the first-graders in this,” said Ms. Smith-Upton. With the help of her mother, Rose Rivers, Ms. Smith-Upton spent the past 12 weeks at King Lab working with students on the mural.  Her work is already familiar to many Evanston residents.  She was the original artist on the “Wall of Struggle and Dreams” mural at Clyde-Brummel Park, and two summers ago she oversaw the rejuvenation of the project there.

Asked what challenges she faced in creating the King Lab mural, she said, “I’m a mother, so the kids didn’t really ‘challenge’ me. The biggest challenge was the limited amount of time – only one hour each time with six groups of kids.” She said she tried to have everything well organized for each class, for example, compressing into about five minutes what could have been a 20-minute description about cutting mosaic tiles. “It worked out really well and gave an opportunity for kids to work together in a group,” she said.

The highlight, she said, “was seeing kids who didn’t want to leave.

They wanted to keep coming back because they were so excited about the project. …  Some kids who may be different types of learners in class can just connect with art. There is something transforming about art.”

The second phase of the mural – planned for the same students next year when they are fifth-graders – is not yet conceived but will represent the school itself. Phase three, mostly likely to be completed in the following year, will represent the future of the school.

During a presentation to parents and the media on April 19, fourth-grade students read a history of the school, recited original poetry and played chords in a blues song. Principal Dr. Jeff Brown praised the students for their work and said, “After you’ve gone – when you’ve gone to high school and gone off to college – you can come back and say, ‘I was part of this.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...