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‘Emmett Till’ poet urges the reinstatement of 2 teachers

Times Staff Writer

The award-winning author of “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” a poetic memorial to the teenage civil rights icon murdered in Mississippi, said Wednesday it was “unconscionable” that a planned presentation of the work by students at a Los Angeles charter school sparked the firing of two teachers.

Marilyn Nelson, a former poet laureate of Connecticut and National Book Award finalist, wrote to the school, Celerity Nascent, and said that she was “troubled” and “shocked” at the events and urged that teachers Marisol Alba and Sean Strauss be reinstated.

Controversy erupted last month when the school canceled a special Black History Month presentation by the seventh-grade class that was to include the reading of a poem and laying of a wreath of flowers inspired by Nelson’s book.

School officials had contended that the Till case -- in which the black teenager was beaten to death in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman -- was too graphic for younger children and did not fit the mood of what was to be a celebratory event.

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The students had been learning about Till and planning the presentation for two weeks, and many wrote letters of protest to urge administrators to reconsider their decision. Alba, who helped students prepare the presentation, and math teacher Strauss signed one of the letters and were later terminated.

“It’s a terrible injustice,” said Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut. “I wanted them to know that they’re not alone. They raised their voices and that took courage.”

In her letter, Nelson wrote, “Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Mamie Till-Mobley would have been proud of your students’ passionate and clear view of your decision to cancel their program. They would have signed the students’ letters of protest too.”

Alba and Strauss said they did not find anything offensive or threatening in the student letters. Celerity administrators would not characterize the letters and would not discuss specifics of the firings. Executive Director Vielka McFarlane said she believed that Nelson was misinformed that the school did not teach about Emmett Till. But she said the school is working with community groups to provide students and their families with a broader understanding of the Emmett Till story.

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Several community leaders, including Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, met with administrators Tuesday and said that they were reassured that the school was committed to teaching all aspects of African American history and that the teachers’ rights to a hearing and appeal were protected. The school accepted an invitation to a screening of a documentary on Till this Saturday.

“We continue to believe black history should be taught throughout the entire school year and not just one month,” McFarlane said. “We’re hoping to expose families to all aspects of the struggle, including parents of kindergartners. We’re trying to make it a community event.”

Alba, meanwhile, said she was happy to have Nelson as an ally.

“I’m speechless,” she said. “She’s my favorite author.”

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carla.rivera@latimes.com


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