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Black Panther poem reading touches off concerns at East Ridge

East Ridge High School Principal Aaron Harper found himself fielding some complaints Thursday after a controversial poem meant to honor Black History Month was read aloud over the school's public address system.

"The Black Child's Pledge," written in 1968 by Shirley Williams and published in the controversial Black Panther group's newspaper, was read during East Ridge's morning announcements as an ongoing activity honoring Black History Month.

Not long after the poem was read, Twitter comments began bubbling up from Woodbury community members, including Kelly Fenton, whose son attends East Ridge.

"There are lot better examples and things that can be recited than something from a Black Panther," said Fenton, who is also the Minnesota Republican Party's vice chairwoman.

The Black Panther Party supported militant action in support of progress for the "black power" movement of the 1960s.

Fenton wondered why nonviolent black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks weren't honored instead during the announcements.

"It was a lack of judgment," she said.

The poem touches on tolerance, while also calling on young blacks to mobilize.

The last two stanzas read:

"I will discipline myself to direct my energies thoughtfully and constructively rather than wasting them in idle hatred.

I will train myself never to hurt or allow others to harm my Black brothers and sisters for I recognize that we need every Black man, woman, and child to be physically, mentally and psychologically strong. These principles I pledge to practice daily and to teach them to others in order to unite my people."

Harper said the poem wasn't read to incite anger and students were not instructed to recite it "like they would, for example, the Pledge of Allegiance."

The idea, he said was not to impose the doctrine of the Black Panthers onto students, but to honor black history by sharing other perspectives of those involved in the civil rights movement.

"It is our history, whether we're proud of it or not," he said. "The intent of doing what we're doing is to honor the differences among the stakeholders of our community. That's the value we're attempting to pass on."

Harper took responsibility for the poem being read, but said he was not aware at the time that "The Black Child's Pledge" had been picked. He said the reading was "student-driven" and had been vetted by a staff member he declined to identify.

"I didn't micromanage it," Harper said. "I will take accountability and responsibility for the decision."

Harper said he didn't hear any complaints from students, but did take calls from about five parents and other community members.

If he could do it again, Harper said he would have an excerpt from what he called the "lengthy" poem to be read, "and then use that as a catalyst for a learning opportunity."

"The intent is positive, despite the fact that this might have been a re-do in the future," Harper said. "But learning is a process, it's not an event. I think this was a real example of that. I think it's a good lesson learned by all."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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