MLK: Remembering More Than a Great Man

January 15, 2018 · 12:45 pm

“Today in school we learned about Martin Luther King Jr., and how he came up with the idea that white people and black people could be together.”

This is Nati’s takeaway from a week or so of activities centered around MLK.  I am happy that he’s learning about Martin Luther King Jr., but he seems to have come away with the idea that MLK single-handedly abolished discrimination based on race.

Nati's MLK poster

Nati’s MLK poster

“Martin Luther King Jr. was a great leader of the Civil Rights Movement,” I tell him, “but it wasn’t really his idea.  A lot of people worked together.”  Rosa Parks comes to mind.  He’ll probably learn about her at school, too.  I also think of Malcolm X, but I doubt he’ll come up in the 3rd-grade curriculum.  The Black Power movement doesn’t fit as nicely into the narrative that Civil Rights means “white people and black people can be together”.

I think about the many organizers, protesters, marchers, and rioters, and the insults, abuse, and losses they endured.  I think of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow.  All of this is distilled into Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  But what does that speech even mean, if you don’t understand what preceded it?

Lily came home the following day talking about how Martin Luther King Jr. was a great president of the United States.

“He was a leader, but not the president,” I tell her.

“We learned in school that he made it so black and white people could be together and that before that, they couldn’t be together or get married.  I asked my teacher what would happen if black and white people got married before they changed the rule, but she didn’t know.”

I think of Loving v. Virginia.  I think of the many mixed couples who came before them.  I think of families that couldn’t be families, and black men killed for “raping” white women.  I think of Thomas Jefferson, fathering his own slaves.

“Well, it would depend on the situation,” I tell her, “but they could be arrested because it was against the law.”  She looks concerned.

I feel frustrated with her teacher for saying she didn’t know.  Is there a chance she didn’t?  But to be fair, this is not an easy topic to explain to someone else’s biracial 6-year-old.  After all, the answer I gave her was just a sliver of the truth, and I feel ill-equipped to educate my own children about the history of racial relations in this country.

“What made you ask that question?” I ask her.

“Our family.”

Nati’s “I Have A Dream” Poem

I Have a Dream

That I can make it daytime forever.
That My family will never lose money.
That my friends will be happy.

Oh, I Have a Dream…
That all children will never get sick.
That grownups will never get divorced.
That people will start to stop littering.

Oh, I Have a Dream…
That people will have good character.
That people will learn Spanish.
That there will be peace on earth.

Oh, I Have a Dream…

Leave a comment!

Post Navigation