Let Freedom Ring: Thoughts on Martin Luther King’s Legacy

By Michael Coughlin, President an CEO of Crotched Mountain Foundation

I am, of course, not alone in my reverence for Martin Luther King. Today, when we remember the man and the irrevocable impact he had on our society, I am reminded of the core truth that lies at the center of everything he stood for: all people have value.

It doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is or what family you were born into or where you grew up—all humans are imbued with a divine spark that makes each one of us priceless. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King harkens back to the Declaration of Independence: “I still have a dream. It is deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

This is the creed that defined him and it is what defines us as well. It is this idea, that all are created equal, which courses through the bedrock of Crotched Mountain.

Over 60 years ago, Harry Gregg looked at a small mountain in Greenfield and saw it as a magical place where children with polio could find compassion and care. Today, his legacy lives on. Polio may be an artifact of the past, but the students we serve today bring with them new challenges: severe autism diagnoses, communication barriers, ultra-rare neurological syndromes, and physical disabilities like cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and tetraplegia.

Every student that walks our school hallways is incredibly, fantastically unique—but the hard truth is that their lives are probably looked upon as “less-than” by the outside world. Their behaviors will make you jittery. Their outbursts are too loud and disruptive. They don’t conform to the norms that we as a society have deemed to be “the right way to act.”

For the families, teachers, therapists, and staff at Crotched Mountain, our collective charge is to look at these behaviors in a completely different manner, not as barriers, but opportunities, not as walls, but as windows. It is on us to embrace this opportunity and help every child forge the kind of life in the community that we all want — a life  of safety, independence, and joy.

A life of value.

I can’t help but think of Billy. A long-time student and now a Crotched Mountain alum, Billy was a young man who lived his life in a motorized wheelchair, limited by his disability to perform even the most basic life functions on his own. But I can’t remember an instance when he was not smiling. Here was a young man living a life which so many “normal” people would consider too difficult, even unbearable.

But anyone who spent just a few minutes with Billy would feel inspired; he was a one-man battery-charger, someone so filled with pure, distilled positivity, you couldn’t help but feel hopeful and rejuvenated. I have known few people who were as free as Billy.

He spoke at last year’s Crotched Mountain School graduation, delivering the keynote address he wrote himself using eye-tracking technology. Articulated through his electronic speech device, his comments included these words: “I would encourage all my fellow graduates to work hard to accomplish their dreams, always remember to be helpful to others, and try and be a leader in all you do.”

Martin Luther King gave us the blueprint. He promulgated the basic human value that we have eternal, intrinsic worth, no matter how we appear from the outside, no matter what others may think of us. I know he would be proud of Billy. And, I hope he would be proud of us.

Because, in a way, Dr. King gave us our marching orders on August 28, 1963:

“From the prodigious hilltops in New Hampshire, let freedom ring.”

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