Groton Answers the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Call for Community

Nearly sixty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Groton School, students, faculty, and staff celebrated MLK Day by examining the challenges in King’s teachings and exploring ways to make his vision of a Beloved Community come alive on the Circle.   
In many ways, the themes of Dr. King’s February 1963 Groton address are echoed in the historic “I Have a Dream” speech he gave later that year in Washington: The strength of nonviolent resistance. Love’s redemptive power over hate. The promise of an American Dream for all.     
So, when planning the weekend’s slate of events, Associate Director of Admission and Director of Inclusion Outreach Carolyn Chica sought to spotlight the depth and range of Dr. King’s philosophy by going well beyond the overused sound bites too often thrown around on his holiday. At Groton, pursuing Dr. King’s Beloved Community would be a true community effort.
A keynote speaker and alumni Q&A panel were set up. The student Cultural Alliance was asked to help design and lead workshops. Beyond Sunday’s Episcopal service, which featured a portion of the 1963 Groton speech, Spiritual Life found ways to weave an interfaith examination of Dr. King’s teachings into Friday’s Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian student group meetings and Sunday’s Roman Catholic and Buddhist gatherings.

“Leading up to the weekend, the Spiritual Life team agreed we’d incorporate themes and traditions related to Martin Luther King Jr. and the principles of nonviolent resistance, love, and justice into all of our services,” said the Rev. Allison Read, Groton chaplain. 

“Even the planning of a day like this needs to involve the very principles of diversity, inclusion, and belonging that we’re promoting,” she added. “It’s very much about partnership. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a one-man show.”

As he took the stage at the Campbell Performing Arts Center (CPAC), Monday morning’s keynote speaker, best-selling author, activist, and rower Arshay Cooper, admitted he felt pressure following in Dr. King’s footsteps at Groton, even decades later.
“I never thought I would speak at the same place as Dr. King,” he said. “If you just knew my life then and see me now, man, you’d know God is real.”
Mr. Cooper grew up in a broken home on the West Side of Chicago, a neighborhood where, he said, “you’re skipping over pools of blood and you lose friends, literally here today and gone tomorrow. I ran for my life and heard gunshots when I slept. I grew up where Dr. King’s dream existed everywhere except for my community. 
“So it’s hard to see into the future,” he added. “It’s hard to do math and all the simple things you’re supposed to do as a kid at school. I didn’t know what to do with that, so I did what I did best: I buried my story. I buried my fears, my doubts, my anxiety. But when you bury those things, you bury them alive. And, like a boomerang, they have a funny way of coming back.”
By the time he got to high school, he was ready to leave behind the shackles of his childhood and seize his opportunity. A white woman and two men—one Black and one Jewish—came to the lunchroom one day looking for kids to try out a new sport: crew. Despite it being the first boat he’d ever seen (and originally thinking they were recruiting for gangs, the only “crews” he knew), Mr. Cooper was curious. “I think, honestly, that diversity in the leadership helped me to make my decision that maybe I would try it out.”
Rowing did not come easy to a team of young Black men, few of whom had ever been on the water or worked as a team. When they weren’t ignored by the fancy white teams at the boat house, they were ridiculed. Mr. Cooper began to lose some hope when a coach noticed him stepping over a pile of trash on the boat house floor. 
“My coach said, ‘Leave the boat house better than you found it, even if you didn’t make the mess. It makes it easier for the next group,’” Mr. Cooper explained. “Eventually, I realized that, if I could just leave the boat house, the classroom, the school, the community, the country, better than I found it, even if I didn’t make the mess, it would make it easier for the next generation.”
He started dragging a friend out of bed every morning, so he’d go to school instead of hanging with his gang. He went up to the white kids who’d ignored him and actually talked to them. The conversations were always uncomfortable but often transformative. He developed new relationships, saw new opportunities, and began to make what he called “Dr. King moments.” 
Mr. Cooper went on to captain his crew, the first all-Black high school rowing team in America. After spending some time in AmeriCorps, he attended Le Cordon Bleu and ultimately fulfilled another dream of being a professional chef, working for the likes of World Wrestling Entertainment. He’s since worked as a coach and counselor, and helped create the same kind of rowing programs that changed his life in other low-income communities across the country.
Near the end of his talk, Mr. Cooper asked Groton student-athletes to stand and say what they’ve learned from their coaches in one word. After going around the auditorium, he pointed to a singular truth about all the answers. 
“You have spent hours and hours and hours working on your craft, your sport,” he said, “and not one person said kicking, jumping, shooting, pitching. Why? Because it’s so much more than sports. Connection, determination, grit, trust, accountability. Those are the very words that are going to change the culture of your school, the culture of your team. Hang on to that word, represent that word, because that’s the word that changes lives.

“When I think of MLK, I don’t think about his career as an educated preacher, but I think about the hope that he brought to so many people in this country. When I think about Harriet Tubman, I don’t think about her career as a union spy, but I think about the freedom that she brought to so many people. When I think about Gandhi, I don’t think about his career as an attorney but the peace that he brought to so many villages. When we represent something bigger than our careers, bigger than our sports, bigger than our daily routine, that’s when change happens.”
Students received copies of Mr. Cooper’s award-winning memoir, A Most Beautiful Thing, and he signed books following his talk. A recent film adaptation of the book was screened over the weekend in the Schoolhouse’s Sackett Forum.
Mr. Cooper’s talk was bookended by student performances. Tiyanu Akinjaiyeju ’25, Luisa Garcia Ramos ’24, Ebun Lawore ’24, and Afrika Gay ’24 performed a version of the Roberta Flack/Fugees song, “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” Members of the Poetry Club—Julie Xie ’23, Ella Farahnakian ’25, Agathe Robert ’24, Margaret Kaneb ’25, Raymond Hildreth ’25, Lena Aloise ’27, Kyra Minda ’23, and Sophia Bay ’23—read their “Words of Dreams: A series of poems.” And the Essence Step Team—Lang Burgess ’23, Kyra Minda Chiriboga ’23, Janice Darkwah ’23, Arianna Werkun ’24, Elanor Taggart ’24, Daisy Adinkrah ’24, Jennifer Polynice ’25—danced to Beyonce’s “Moved.”

Following the keynote, Varsity Tennis Captain Lawrence Li ’23 led a conversation in the Webb Marshall Room about the intersection of identity and athletics with two alumni former rowers: Trustee Kevin Griffith ’80, a four-year varsity coxswain (and 2014 Groton Athletic Hall of Fame inductee) and basketball player who went on to coxswain at Yale and is now president of Glenmore Capital Group in Chicago, and Nailah-Imani Pierce ’18, a four-year varsity rower and basketball player who competed at UMass-Amherst for three years and was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Academic team in 2021. She currently lives in Brooklyn and works at Goldman Sachs as an equity derivatives trader.
The two athletes came to rowing in very different ways. 
“I had never seen a boat until I got to Groton,” said Mr. Griffith, who was raised by a single mother in New York City. “It just wasn’t something you did in Brooklyn.”
Mr. Griffith was an undersize child who was always the smallest kid in his class. Determined to play catcher on the Groton baseball team, he only turned to crew after getting beat up behind the plate one too many times.
“I got into crew because I was really, really bad at baseball,” he said. “I was terrible. One day, I was in pain, dragging all my equipment back to the locker room, and I thought, ‘Crew. Maybe I don’t have to get run over any more.’ So I went down to the boat house and never came back.”
Ms. Pierce, on the other hand, grew up near the coast on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Her mother put her in the water at age 4 and she fell in love: “It’s always been a place of comfort and magic and home for me.”
Still, as a tall, strong girl, Ms. Pierce was convinced she’d play basketball. A concussion in eighth grade derailed her career for months and, when she got to Groton, an older friend suggested she try crew as a way to crosstrain until she was ready for the court again. 
“It’s this weird sport I’ve never heard of that sounds super cultish, down in the woods, in the water, where no one can see you,” she joked. “But I went anyway. I was adventurous and I could swim, so why not?”
Both Ms. Pierce and Mr. Griffith talked about how they soon discovered love of rowing, how it humbles you with self-challenge while forcing you to work together with your teammates (“You win as a community,” Ms. Pierce said), and what it was like being Black in a predominantly white sport.
“There were probably people who wondered why I was there. There were probably people who made comments,” said Mr. Griffith. “It’s nice to see more inclusion in the sport, because it’s a sport that I clearly love.”
“Don’t be afraid to be the only person,” added Ms. Pierce. “A lot of really cool experiences have happened in my life because I decided I was OK with being a little different or doing something I didn’t see other people around me doing. That’s how you get the cool stories in your life. That’s how you have these moments that are interesting.”
Monday’s activities concluded with a series of workshops for students and faculty designed to dig deeper into Dr. King’s beliefs and how they intersect with Groton’s mission, particularly regarding diversity and inclusion. 
“More recently, I’ve been thinking about the importance of highlighting how multifaceted MLK’s vision was,” Ms. Chica explained. “He had strong opinions about economic equality, and so the prompts within the student workshops found ways to touch upon that. Over the course of his lifetime, I think his politics might have changed as well, so we came up with a spectrum activity where students are asked to place themselves on an agree or disagree line but still have the flexibility to change their mind.” 

Faculty members gathered in the Chapel and listened to sections of Dr. King’s Groton speech before splitting up into small groups to reflect on what fueled their passion to pursue justice, how the relationship between time and distance changed since 1963, and how the school’s D&I current efforts match up to the challenges Dr. King issued sixty years ago.

“It was an opportunity to bring faculty together to share on a deeper, personal level around those things that motivate them to participate in building a Beloved Community and in seeking after justice,” Rev. Read said. “It was also an opportunity for us to say, ‘Where are we now?’ Groton School has been undertaking very deliberate and intentional efforts toward diversity, inclusion, and belonging. This event is yet another occasion for us to reflect on those efforts and those initiatives in relation to the urgings of Dr. King himself, one of the greatest prophets of modern times.”