'Hats' off to King in Birthday Observance -- Teacher's Program Leads off Celebrations

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The first hat on the program is a straw hat. Dr. Joe Cornelius puts the wide-brimmed hat on his head and tells his audience about field workers, slaves, in the old South.

"It's a hat of humility, a hat full of shame," he says. Next up, chronologically, is a blue Union soldier's cap from the Civil War . "I use the hats to illustrate the different aspects of African- American history from slavery to the present," he says.

Cornelius and his "Hats" presentation are part of the program Saturday and Monday as the National Civil Rights Museum celebrates what would have been the 83rd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Hats" began more than a decade ago and led to a national TV appearance by Cornelius on "Tony Brown's Journal." A science and biology teacher, Cornelius was teaching at Columbia Central High School in Maury County at the time. Now at Maury County Middle School, he says he began the "Hats" program to help make history approachable to students.

"I recognized that kids really didn't know anything about their past. They didn't appreciate the opportunities that they have. They didn't appreciate the sacrifices that were made for them to have these opportunities. God gave me 'Hats' as a way to help them know history."

He now is often hoarse from repeat performances. The hat that seems to get the most response is a graduation cap, he says. "It signifies that the key to our future success is education. " His repertoire of hats also includes an astronaut's helmet, a hood used to cover the faces of lynching victims and a derby hat signifying "the emergence of music, art and poetry" as part of the African- American experience.

The celebration is among several scheduled around the city during the weekend and on Monday's national birthday celebration for the late civil rights leader.

The Saturday morning youth events at the museum, 9:30 a.m.-noon, are free, but require tickets that can be picked up at the museum through Friday. Those tickets do not include museum tours.

After Saturday's Youth Day performances, a second "Hats" performance will be held at 1:30 p.m. for the general museum audience. That show will be included in the admission price. It will be followed with a 3-5 p.m. screening of "Road to the Promised Land," a series of interviews related to King's legacy. Admission to the film is free and will include a book signing by Richie Sherrod Jackson for "The House by the Side of the Road," her firsthand account of the Selma, Ala., civil rights movement

On Monday, the official King holiday, admission prices to the museum are reduced from $13 to $3 or to $2 with a canned food donation to benefit the Mid-South Food Bank. …