LAUDERHILL — When Mavis Ward came to Martin Luther King Elementary School in July, there were no visual reminders of its namesake on the campus. As principal, she began to facilitate creative ways and visual avenues to instill the legacy of the slain civil rights leader in the minds of her students.
When the opportunity came to have an MLK flag outside the school as a daily reminder of King’s legacy, and to sell the flags to fund specific school projects, Ward seized on it quickly.
The school, at 591 NW 31st Avenue in Lauderhill, flies its flag daily in honor of MLK’s legacy. It is the first school in the country to both display this particular flag – licensed and authorized by King’s family – on its campus, and leverage it as a fundraiser.
The MLK flag, created in 1998 by Maria Landry Ross, founding partner of Ross Flag and Design, LLC (RFD) in Chino Hills, California, was released in May of this year.
It also flies at institutions including the National Civil Rights Museum, which is formerly the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where King was assassinated in 1968; the Birmingham Civil Rights Institution; DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago; the African American Museum of Philadelphia; as well as Howard University and Morehouse College.
“When I saw the picture of the flag,” Ward said, “I thought it would not only help, but open another avenue to keep Dr. King’s dream alive. It will also allow the community an opportunity to support his dream.”
Money raised from the flag sales will be used to purchase technology equipment for the students and fund the school’s academic programs. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students will be taken on a trip to The King Center in Atlanta, “where we will also make a donation,” Ward said.
The cost of the King Center trip has not yet been finalized, Ward said, “but I have faith and know we are going.”
Ward said strong academics are at the forefront of her approach. “We are a D school, but have shown continuous improvement. There has been a major change in the students’ behavior since implementing our Dream Keepers program.”
A student becomes a Dream Keeper when he or she excels academically and makes a conscious effort to keep the dream alive, Ward said.
Timbria Burke, 10, a Dream Keeper at the school, described MLK as a great man who helped her “see that we can prove a point without the violence; practice peaceful ways.”
The fifth-grader said she reads books and talks about MLK with her grandmother because “she knows a lot about him even though she never met him.”
She continued, “If I saw two kids who did not like each other because they were different, I would say to them that everybody is different in their own way. And if they just stopped for a minute to learn about each other, they might find out that they have something in common.”
Maria Ross, the MLK flag’s creator, said it was a 10-year journey to get it licensed by the King family.
“We first submitted the flag in 2003 [to The King Center] and were turned down,” she said. “We tried again last year after repackaging it, and they decided to work with us.”
This year, on May 24, the flag began to fly daily at the King Center, the first in its history, she said.
Lori Ross, RFD’s operations officer and Maria Ross’ sister-in-law (Maria and Lori are married to two brothers), said that The King Center asked the RFD to do a grassroots launch, reach out to the community, and let the community know that the flag is available.
“We want to get it into our schools to educate our youth,’’ Lori Ross said. “They should be able to look on their classroom wall and recognize who he is.”
It was a struggle bringing the flag to fruition, one marked by some of the atrocities of the Civil Rights Movement itself. Although Maria Ross created the original design 10 years ago, the project was placed on hold after her family, while living in Katy, Texas, was targeted for a hate crime on Juneteenth (the June 19 annual recognition of the end of slavery) in 2000.
“Our neighbors knocked on the door around 2:30 that morning,” Maria Ross said. “There was a seven-foot cross burning in our front yard; the flames had reached more than 20 feet. The tree that cross was butted against was near the bedroom of where my 3-year-old slept. I was horrified and afraid.’’
Maria Ross said that she later discovered that her family had been “watched for about a year. They actually planned it for Juneteenth.”
She added that the perpetrators “wore pillow cases; dug a two-foot hole about 10 feet from our front door where they placed the cross, draped in a Confederate flag, and doused it with gasoline.”
During the trial, Maria Ross said, they admitted to driving by the house “to see how the cross was burning,” and that they “thought our home would burn to the ground.
“They filmed the entire incident,” she added.
A federal jury in 2003 awarded more than $24 million to Dwayne and Maria Ross and their two minor children after five white men burned a cross on their lawn. The family was awarded more than
$8 million in compensatory damages and more than $16 million in punitive damages, according to The National Law Journal.
Houston attorney Benjamin L. Hall III, who represented the Rosses, told the Journal that on the morning of June 19, 2000, the men, then each 20 years old, trespassed on the Rosses' property while wearing pillowcases over their heads and carrying a wooden cross wrapped in sheets.
After a failed attempt to dig a hole in which to place the cross, the men leaned it against a tree outside of the home, doused it in gasoline, ignited it and fled, the Journal reported.
Charles R. Parker, a Houston attorney who represented three of the five men, told the Journal that he argued at trial that the criminal sanctions imposed on his clients and their co-defendants, which ranged from a 10-year sentence in federal prison to a seven-month sentence in a federal boot camp, were sufficient punishment.
Maria Ross said the incident left her feeling that she had a place and had stepped outside of it, “and that is not my American dream.’’
Later, Ross, along with the family of James Byrd, testified about the incident in Austin and was instrumental in convincing government officials to pass Texas’ hate crime bill.
After the trial and sentencing of the perpetrators, the Ross family, because of harassment and stress, relocated to California, where Maria Ross continued her vision for the flag.
The flag, she said, is “a healing for me because of the cross burning.’’
For more information or to purchase a Martin Luther King, Jr. flag or banner, contact the school at 754-322-6550 or log onto rossflags.com.
Photo By Khary Bruyning. A flag featuring Martin Luther King Jr. flies above a Lauderhill school that is named after him.