y girls are fascinated with the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They’re convinced that if Dr. King had never been born, their lives would be very different. Or at least Lauren’s life would; she’s my middle child who strongly resembles my husband’s biracial family. Sarah, my kindergartner, announced the other day that Lauren was black and white while she—Sarah—was just white. Lauren and I tried to explain that all three kids in our family are “part black” since their grandfather was black. Sarah seemed to understand this, but then shrugged and announced she still had white skin. I don’t know if Sarah extended that to an understanding of how she would have been treated during Dr. King’s era versus how her sister might have been treated, but Lauren, meanwhile, is convinced she wouldn’t even be able to go to school today if it hadn’t been for Dr. King. Obviously we have a long way to go to explain the evolution of race relations in our country, but I’m glad my kids are aware of these issues and seem to appreciate the impact of people like Dr. King.
After watching the Eyes of the Prize
documentary a few months ago, I remain impressed not only with Dr. King but with the brave souls who conducted the sit-ins, volunteered to be Freedom Riders (an assignment that turned out to be especially treacherous), or walked the many miles in Southern city streets to protest so many unfair Jim Crow laws. Inspired by Dr. King’s message of non-violent demands for change, they subjected themselves not only to humiliating treatment by police and passersby, but to very real, often physically painful, threats to their safety and lives. These people who populated the Civil Rights Movement deserve as much recognition as the leaders of that movement.
While I lived in Nashville in the early ’90s, I had to do some library research for a free-lance project that led me to Fisk University. While I knew Fisk was a traditionally black college, I had no inkling of the tremendous role students from that school played during the Civil Rights Movement. Eyes on the Prize
includes footage not only of the sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters and how violent they turned, but documents the classes at Fisk designed to teach volunteer students how to conduct these sit-ins. During these classes, students rehearsed their incredibly self-controlled, non-violent reactions while other students behaved like antagonist police officers. The actual officers who bullied these students from the lunch counters—only to come back to remove the same students time and again—must have been impressed to at least a small degree by the resolve and courage of these young people. The students’ determination to make their statement without raising a hand to retaliate or hurt another person lay at the core of their efforts and I believe contributed greatly to their ultimate success.
So I start by trying to explain to my girls Dr. King’s overall message: believe in yourself and treat all others with the respect with which you’d have them treat you. Since this correlates so closely to the Golden Rule, they grasp it immediately, and since it involves racial issues, they’re especially intrigued. I suspect, too, that Dr. King’s message and efforts fascinate because they’re tied so dramatically to a fight against unfair authority figures.
One of my resolutions is to stop being an unfair authority figure to my kids, but I’ve already failed on this a few times in the past two weeks. I’m the type who gets up at 5:30 and still frets there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, and having three strong-willed children with their own agendas certainly doesn’t help. By the end of the day, I’m tired and cranky and my ears hurt (Literally! I have sensitive hearing that borders on the bizarre, and when I’m tired or stressed my ears hurt.) so much that chatty little girls who are also tired and cranky test the limits of any patience that might remain. But sometimes my temper flares much earlier in the day, especially when we’re trying to get out the door to school. Dr. King’s message of peace and mutual respect rings in my tired ears at these times, but it’s a challenge to hear it over the din of my not-so-peaceful protests. (One time a while back Sarah stayed in the garage when we were dragging backpacks inside at the end of a school day and I was on a rant about something Lauren had done. When I demanded to know why Sarah was still in the garage she replied, as only a very practical preschooler could, “I’m waiting for YOU to stop YELLING.” Another time, Lauren told me that if children drove me so crazy, maybe I shouldn’t have had any. Ouch.)
So as this holiday weekend comes and goes, I’ll recall the images of those Fisk students who set such a noble example for the rest of the country. I’ll get out our picture book about the boy Martin Luther King, Jr. and read it to my girls. I’ll talk to them about the importance of striving for peace in our world. And I’ll take one step at a time as I try to implement that message into every action, as I try to treat my own children with kindness and respect on a much more consistent basis. For me this is a difficult challenge, but it’s a road that needs to be traveled if I’m ever to finally attain that prize I’ve had my eyes on for so long, if I’m ever to get to a real place of peace in my home and in my heart.