Thoughts on MLK day
This morning we watched CNN’s airing of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, popularly known as “I Have a Dream”. CNN replayed the entire speech at noon Eastern time, which was 9AM here.
The children are off school for the MLK holiday, so I explained to our son that we would be watching this famous speech. I don’t know what the public schools teach about this particular slice of history, but apparently none of it sunk in. How would I briefly explain the significance of King’s life to a child who has never witnessed racial discrimination?
When I was a child in southern Virginia, almost everything was still segregated. Not only the schools, but also the eating establishments and the churches were either black or white. One bar at the edge of town was considered progressive because it had separate sections for both races. About the only thing we shared were our surnames. Probably more black people than white in our county bore my mother’s maiden name – because from the time of the revolution until the Civil War her family owned large tracts of land in that region, and they had many slaves whose families kept their last name even after they were freed.
My great-grandmother (whom we called “Nana”) told me about living on one of those family farms as a young girl in the late 1800′s. Many of the former slave families still lived there, too — working the farm for their food, clothing and shelter. Economically it was no different than slavery, except for the fact that they could leave if they wanted to. But children have a way of simplifying relationships until grown-ups complicate them, so a little black girl that was her age became her best friend. Nana always told me that there was really no difference between white and “colored” (the less objectionable term in those days). “We’re all just people, and many a white person is just as bad or worse than any colored folk.”
My great-grandfather on my mother’s side fought for the Confederacy. He was over 50 when he fathered my grandfather in 1890. When my grandfather died in 1968, he was laid out in our church for the funeral service. Along with the others attending came Mr. Callands. The Callandses lived just up the road from my grandparent’s house, and Mr. Callands and my grandfather (who was called Joe) were great friends. “I didn’t think Joe would mind if I came,” said Mr. Callands. I believe he may have been the first black person ever to set foot inside that church since it was founded in 1800.
That was just several months after Dr. King had been killed in Memphis. Our school system had already taken tentative steps towards integration, swapping only a few students and teachers, some of whom received threats of harm. But a couple of years later, full integration proceeded without any major incident. I remember how strange it was to meet all these black children my age — some of them got on the school bus not far from my house, and I hadn’t even known that they existed before. Yes, at first there was mistrustfulness — but it wasn’t long before friendships began to develop.
But my children don’t like to listen to any of my old stories, so I tried a different approach.
“Martin Luther King told people that they shouldn’t hate each other just because they’re different. They should get along together and treat each other the same.”
“He sounds like the best person ever!” my son replied.
“I don’t know if he was the best person ever,” I replied, “but he was right about that.”