Beyond THE FUTURE: Dr. King’s Legacy of Peace…at Home
My girls are fascinated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They’re convinced that if he’d never been born, their lives would be very different. Or at least Lauren’s would; she’s my middle child who strongly resembles my husband’s biracial family. Sarah, my youngest, once announced that Lauren was “black and white” while she—Sarah—was “just white.” When Lauren and I tried to explain all three kids in our family are “part black” since their grandfather was black, Sarah seemed to understand but then shrugged and announced she still had white skin, apparently pleased that would never change. I don’t know if Sarah extended that to an understanding of how she might have been treated during Dr. King’s era versus how her sister would have been treated; Lauren, meanwhile, is convinced she wouldn’t even be in school today if it hadn’t been for Dr. King.
After watching the PBS Eyes on the Prize documentary on the Civil Rights Movement last year, I was 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 actively protested Jim Crow laws. Inspired by Dr. King’s message, they subjected themselves not only to humiliating treatment by police and passersby but to very real threats to their safety and lives.
When I lived in Nashville, I conducted some library research 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 not only includes footage of the sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters and how violent they turned, but documents the Fisk classes that taught volunteers how to conduct sit-ins. During the classes, students rehearsed their incredibly self-controlled, non-violent reactions while other students behaved like antagonist police officers. The actual officers who bullied 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 contributed greatly to their ultimate success.
So I try 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 fascinates because it’s tied so dramatically to a fight against unfair authority figures.
One of my New Year resolutions last year was to stop being an unfair authority figure to my kids. With a lot of help I’ve come a long way, but (and my kids will vouch for this) I have a long way to go. My temper still flares, just not as often. This year, Dr. King’s holiday offers a well-timed chance for a review of how things are going now that the busy holiday/birthday season for my family has passed. I feel challenged intellectually more than emotionally lately, and I definitely don’t feel as overwhelmed as I used to. Meanwhile my kids are getting older and more mature, so they’re less likely to react to rules with nerve-wracking meltdowns.
When I do feel myself losing my cool, it helps to recall the images not only of Dr. King and his message of peace but of activists like the Fisk students who set such a noble example for the rest of the country. This is something I can draw on throughout the year, not just on one special day. When my girls have questions about what happened so long ago and how it impacts their lives, I can get out our books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and read with them. I can talk to all my children about the importance of striving for peace in our world, and I can teach by example, one step at a time, as I treat them with kindness and respect on a consistent basis. This has always been a difficult challenge, but it’s a road I continue to travel so I may someday attain the prize I’ve had my eyes on for so long; so I may someday get to a real place of peace in my home and in my heart.
Photo “Fisk University student Jean Wynona Fleming behind bars in the Nashville jail.” © Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement