Written by Irwin Smallwood
When Mary Burt Siebert recently set out to explore racism and prejudice with her small Sunday school class, she discovered that her teens at Parkway UCC in Winston-Salem, N.C., were way ahead of the curriculum available. So she decided to invent something, and that something turned into a grass roots lesson heard coast to coast.
Youth from Parkway UCC in Winston-Salem, N.C., celebrate after convincing Toys R Us to change merchandise. Winston-Salem Journal photo by David Sandler.
Siebert and her class of eight had been discussing how often rap songs were hate-filled, inflammatory, prejudiced, violent and worse. Her idea was to have them beat some swords into plowshares.
"I thought we would take a rap song that was violent or crude and change the words so that it was a song about love, tolerance and acceptance," says the 40-something young mother and professional opera singer. "So the kids assigned me five popular rap songs to listen to, and I got quite an education."
After she told her husband of the plan, he noticed that the local Toys R Us store carried Eminem posters along with other teen idol posters. Siebert says the store carrying all the posters made it seem as if Eminem was just like the other teen idols.
"I had just finished reading some absolutely hate-filled lyrics of his, so I said to the kids, ‘Do you know his image is sold at Toys R Us?' and they said that was wrong."
When Siebert asked if they wanted to do something about it, she got a quick answer: "Let's picket!"
But first they wrote a respectful petition to the local store, attaching a copy of the lyrics and asking the manager, Greg Stutz, if he didn't agree that it was inappropriate to market this poster to kids. They also invited him to join them in approaching the national management.
"He immediately replied that he didn't want the stuff in his store but that he is expected to stock whatever they send him," she says. "But he also said he would immediately forward our petition to his supervisor in New Jersey."
Four days later Toys R Us announced that it was removing the Eminem poster from its 708 stores coast to coast.
"They said it was based entirely on our petition," says Siebert, "and I think it says a lot for Toys R Us. What I really appreciate is that they took the kids' initiative seriously. These kids [Justin Speaks, Caitlin Nelligan, Marissa Hall, Eric Davis, Michael Brady, Lily Cottrell, Rebecca Adams and C. J. Reilly] do not believe in censorship, but they think corporations should be responsible in their marketing."
Toys R Us apparently agreed, though they said this was the first and only complaint they had received.
Siebert is a former member of University Congregational UCC in Missoula, Mont., and her husband, Glenn, a voice teacher at North Carolina School of the Arts, also comes from a UCC background in Milwaukee. In her spare time, she teaches cowboy songs from the 1800s through the Winston-Salem Arts Council.
Retired newspaper editor Irwin Smallwood, a member of Congregational UCC in Greensboro, N.C., and valued General Synod press room veteran, usually writes about golf but couldn't resist this story.