Birchwood School Third Grader Behind Civil Rights Icon's Visit

Birchwood School of Hawken welcomed the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., a genuine Civil Rights living legend, on Tuesday, Feb. 21, thanks to the charm of one of its third-grade students. When Moss Jr., 88, met the young Woodrow Johnson, the pair hit it off and Moss asked to visit the boy’s school.

Johnson, elected by his student peers as the “Mayor of the Third Grade,” had the honor of introducing Moss Jr., who brought wise words and even a little musical inspiration to the school’s students, staff, and parents in attendance.

Moss Jr. showed a short documentary film set in the 1940s, “Otis’s Dream,” about his father, Otis Moss Sr., walking several miles to a number of polling places, only to be turned away by voting officials each time he attempted to cast his ballot. At each polling station, the officials misled the elder Moss, directing him to another location with the aim of preventing him from voting.

Moss Jr., after a lifetime of activism inspired by his father’s determination, told stories about his own life’s struggles as well as the harrowing ordeal of all of those who suffered and labored under the might of segregation and bigotry, persevering through the use of nonviolence in the face of often deadly brutality meant to blunt Black America’s fight for equal citizenship.

Birchwood social studies teacher Joe Parrino unveiled a portable Civil Rights museum the school has named after Moss Jr. The mini exhibit features images as well as artifacts that Birchwood teachers created with the school’s 3D printer. It’s small enough that it can be circulated throughout the school’s classrooms as well as serve as a foundation to add more features as students grow and generate new ideas about freedom and equality.

Moss Jr. lightened the mood of the room by coaxing the students to sing along with his rendition of “Eyes on the Prize.” By the time he finished, Moss Jr. had the folks in the room chanting along with him as he shared his catchy, four-word mantra: “Learn. Love. Live. Give.”

Moss Jr. is a veteran of the American Civil Rights Movement. As a young man, he took part in sit-ins at lunch counters and government buildings to fight desegregation. Moss took part in some of the most historic events in the nation’s Civil Rights timeline, including the Selma March and the March on Washington. A friend of and adviser to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders, Moss has also advised three sitting U.S. presidents as well as countless other elected officials and captains of industry.
There’s even an interactive, electronic “conversational biography” display of Moss at Cleveland’s Maltz Museum, driven by artificial intelligence technology.

Arriving in Cleveland in 1974, Moss served as pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church for 33 years before retiring in 2008.