Daddy remembers. He grew up in rural Virginia, drinking out of “Coloreds Only” water fountains, going to segregated schools, and riding in the back of the bus. Separate and grossly unequal, that was my father’s life as a child — a painful part he tried to leave behind when he, along with countless African-American southerners, made the great migration North. Just as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was preparing to lead the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Daddy, still a teen, put all he knew and loved behind him. He left his parents and moved alone to Philadelphia and then New York so that he could lay some distance between himself and Jim Crow.
Move forward, he did. He handcrafted a newer, better life for himself — and later, our family — that eventually included owning a nice house in a Long Island, NY, neighborhood where skin color was much less a concern. Still, Daddy will never forget the life he lived as a child. Or the price Dr. King paid so that he and we could know a world of equality.
This is something that our children and our children’s children need to remember, too.
But it’s no easy proposition for today’s generation. What our kids know is this: Dr. King had a dream, and then he was shot by a bad guy and now black people can do the same things as white people without anyone getting mad about it or in trouble for it. We have a holiday in his honor and fete his work with sales at the mall. For these kids and most of their parents, the days of hoses and snapping dogs and burning crosses might as well have happened 150 years ago, rather than just 50.
“Dr. King is almost a fictional historical character to many young people,” says Tarana Burke, the former associate director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, AL, and the director of Just BE, Inc., a nonprofit that benefits teen girls. “They don't get that they are (in many cases) one generation away from him and that they are directly affected by some of the gains he and others like him fought to achieve.”
This is a disservice to children — and not just because they’re missing out on the significance of a crucial piece of American history. Relegating it to dusty history books makes them miss out on how far our country has come; how much further it has to go; and, most importantly, how the passion, righteousness, ideals, and actions of even one person can change our entire world for the better.
Helping our children remember Dr. King’s legacy — and, as Burke points out, the critical role teens and young adults played in the Civil Rights Movement — also assists us parents in shining a light on what’s right and good about the centerpiece of his tenets: that we treat our fellow man equally, judge people “by the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” and have enough decency and respect for ourselves to lift our voices and seek what we think is rightfully ours without resorting to violence to get it.
The questions his actions, and especially his death, elicit can be tricky to navigate, though. How, after all, do you explain to a child who is constantly told to follow the rules that Dr. King was right when he chose to break federal law and encouraged others to do the same? And what words can you draw upon to help young minds wrap themselves around the kind of hate it took to kill Dr. King, who simply wanted our country to treat all of its citizens equally?
For my daughters, the truth has always been the best course, even when the telling was uncomfortable. My husband and I speak of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., with reverence — and we’ve done so since they were preschoolers and able to worship everyone from Laurie Berkner to Stevie Wonder to The Wiggles. We focused on what a great man he was and the power of his voice and actions. Later, when they were able to notice skin color and ask why some of their friends were “pink” with “yellow” hair, our conversations became more frank when it came to MLK: “Because of him, you and your friends can go to the same school and the same playgrounds and have playdates together,” was the standard line when they were kindergartners, and when they were upper elementary school students, they were likely to hear, “Dr. King led boycotts and marched and got beaten up, thrown in jail, and ultimately killed because he wanted our country to do right by African Americans.” My girls know his quest for peace was met with a deadly hail of bullets.
When Mari and Lila were old enough, the talking turned into doing. While others are in the store taking advantage of MLK Day sales, my daughters are participating in a National Day of Service in honor of Dr. King: Cleaning up parks, teaching young children about the activist, and even volunteering at parades and ceremonies held in his honor help make the legend real to them. And the conversation in our home continues. Our daughters know that though we have come a long way and do not think Dr. King died in vain, there is still work to do. Inequalities in housing, education, job opportunities, and more still remain. In fact, a report released this fall showed that American schools are almost as segregated as they were 60 years ago. And just as disconcerting, last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned voter rights previously protected by our Constitution. These steps backward, I explain to my daughters, make Dr. King’s teachings all the more important.
What brings it home for my daughters, though, is riding shotgun with their papa through the streets of his rural Virginia town. Daddy moved back there a decade ago — next door to the house where he was born and raised — and it’s hard for him not to block out the memories. “Right here is where we used to watch the buses with the white children drive by while we walked to school,” he tells my girls somberly. “Over there is the cemetery where they buried black people because the other cemetery was whites only. And over there by the railroad tracks was as far as you went to play if you were black. You could get hurt if you went any farther.”
My daughters listen intently. And they ask questions. And they remember.
Because they need to.
Because we all should.
Photo credit: Dick DeMarsico/New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/Library of Congress
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