Who Spoke at Rectory’s Very First “MLK Day of Service” Event?

Mr.+Williams+with+George+and+Sandra+Groom+in+January%2C+2010.

Photo from Rectory Archives

Mr. Williams with George and Sandra Groom in January, 2010.

Do you know who the guest speaker was at Rectory’s very first “Martin Luther King Day of Service” celebration? One would imagine that the guest speaker would have been someone very special. Well, as it turns out, there were two guest speakers on that day, and they were, and still are, indeed, very special.

Rectory’s current headmaster, Mr. Fred Williams, came up with the idea that Rectory students could best serve the memory and ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr., by performing acts of service on MLK Day, rather than having a day off from school. Thus, the very first “MLK Day of Service” at Rectory was held in January of 2010, during Mr. Williams’ first full year as Rectory’s headmaster. The chosen guest speakers were Rectory dorm parents and faculty members, George and Sandra Groom. Mr. & Mrs. Groom were also civil rights activists, so they were asked to speak about their experiences to the Rectory student body. 

The Grooms have since retired from Rectory School, but they are alive and well and still living nearby. We were curious about their time working with Rectory students on their MLK service projects and their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. back in the 1960s. The DiRectory chose its two senior reporters, Julia Z. and Carson L., to interview the Grooms, which they did via Zoom due to the pandemic. Following are some highlights, along with a few video clips from the recorded interview.

When asked what they first thought about Mr. Williams’ idea of an MLK Day of Service for Rectory students, the Grooms said they thought it was the best way to honor the legacy of Dr. King, as Mr. Williams had stated, since Dr. King spent his entire life helping others. We asked them what their speech was about on Rectory’s first MLK Day of Service, and Mr. Groom very humbly replied, “It was probably about the importance of helping others when they are in need since that’s what we think we are all here to do.”

Mrs. Groom was eager to tell us about a specific Civil Rights Movement event she had participated in. She said that on February 5, 1964, Dr. King visited her college, Drew College in New Jersey, to give a speech. Five thousand people came to hear him speak — 3,000 of them had to stand outside, but she was lucky enough to sit in the auditorium. She said his speech was awe-inspiring, and it was one of the key moments in her life. Dr. King talked about the “American Dream” and how wonderful the words in the U.S. Declaration of Independence are, which state that “all men are created equal,” but that that was not really how everyone was being treated in reality.

“At the end of his speech, we all stood up and sang the song “We Shall Overcome” with him,” said Mrs. Groom. She got to shake Dr. King’s hand afterward, and thank him personally, which was very special to her. Dr. King also had come to her college because of his attempts to get the Voting Rights Act passed. A couple of months later Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), came to her college and motivated the students to spend hours and hours writing letters to their Congressmen asking them to pass the Voting Rights Act. It passed the following year, in 1965. 

(See video clip #1 below titled “Carson asks Mrs. Groom about civil rights events she has attended.”)

A follow-up question that we asked Mrs. Groom was for her to tell us the significance of the song “We Shall Overcome.” She stated that the song started as a spiritual song that the slaves sang when they were working in the fields. The lyrics of the song state that, though they had difficult lives here on earth, it would be better for them when they got to heaven. She continued, “Later, the Blacks sang this song during protest marches and sit-ins when they were trying to gain their freedom and equality, so it became their ‘anthem’ for the Civil Rights Movement.”

(See video clip #2 below titled “Significance of the Song ‘We Shall Overcome.'”)

We asked the Grooms if they had any suggestions for service projects that Rectory students could perform at MLK Day of Service events in the future. For the current year, during the pandemic, Mrs. Groom suggested that “Students could write thank you cards and/or send original drawings to hospital workers and first responders, such as firefighters and EMTs, to thank them for their unwavering service during the pandemic.”

Mr. Groom added, “Collecting and distributing food to local families in need, gathering ‘gently-used’ clothing items, like sneakers and coats, and bringing them to TEEG (Thompson Ecumenical Empowerment Group) or the Salvation Army, etc., for people in the area who need these items, but who can’t afford them due to losing their jobs during the pandemic would be an excellent service project.” He then added, “Visiting someone who lives alone and just listening to them talk, or smiling at someone who looks worried or sad, are all small, but very effective ways to help others.”

The Grooms are fairly well known in the Rectory School and Town of Pomfret communities, and we, like many others, value their opinions and their experiences. So we asked them some tough questions at the end of our interview about the issue of racism and the civil unrest that the U.S. has recently been experiencing. How do the Grooms think we are doing today, compared to ten years ago, in terms of “equality of all human beings?” Do they think we are making progress or going backward? Mr. Groom replied, “We are making progress, but we still have a long way to go, and we have to keep working on improving race relations.” He quoted Dr. King from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, stating, “As Dr. King said, ‘We should not judge others by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,’ but we are not really at that point yet.” 

(See video clip #3 below titled “Are We Making Progress?”)

Julia asks Mr. Groom if he thinks we've made progress with racial equality.

Mrs. Groom said that she has been reading a lot of books on this topic recently, and the biggest takeaway she has learned is that, “It’s not enough to just be nice to everyone, although that’s very important. But we need to really listen to one another and get to know each other’s cultures if we are ever going to overcome racism.” 

Finally, we asked the Grooms what message they would advise today’s young people to promote in order to make equality a reality for all people. Mr. Groom responded by saying, “We should be striving to treat everyone equally; we are all the same. Some people in our country are afraid that they will lose their jobs to ‘those people.’ But we all can do our part. We have to stop judging people; we have to look at people for who they are. ‘Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.’ We have to work at that.”

Mrs. Groom added, “It’s important not to be silent when something is really wrong. We have to speak up when we hear or see something that isn’t right. Sometimes we need to speak out because silence is how things become worse. The other important thing is to listen when people are talking and learn as much as you can about other people and their cultures. It makes a difference. Never stop learning.” 

Mr. Groom closed by saying, “We’re all in this together, and we must all try to make the world a better place for us and for those who come after us. And YOU students are the ones who can make it even better than it is now!”

(See video clip #4 titled “Message for Today’s Young People to Promote.”)

These are strong words and powerful ideas from two beloved members of the Rectory community, and they are most fitting since we have just celebrated and reflected on Martin Luther King Day in January and Black History Month in February. Their call to action for Rectory students is a challenge that all of the faculty and administrators at Rectory continuously work at preparing our students to address as they grow and mature. The Grooms’ thoughts were solemn, but also hopeful, and we thanked them very much for sharing their words of wisdom with us.