Last week I took Nicholas to an interdenominational service celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There was only one other child there. We didn’t stay for the whole thing, just the singing and opening speech and readings from Dr. King’s speeches; then Nick got bored and we left, but I got a lot out of hearing Dr. King’s words read aloud.
I told Nicholas about the service a few days in advance because I wasn’t sure if he was old enough to be interested–he just turned 3. We had never had a reason to discuss racism before. I explained that there was a time when people with light skin treated people with dark skin as if they were not real people and were mean to them (examples: back of the bus, not allowed in restaurants, separate not-as-good schools) and that Dr. King told everyone that this was wrong and led big marches to insist that all people be treated fairly. Nicholas understood this and was pleased by it. He asked if Dr. King would be at the service.
I told him that some people did not like Dr. King’s ideas and were afraid that everyone would listen to him, so they killed him. Nicholas said, “Just like Jesus! Just like that girl on the radio!” [He had been with me when I heard the news about Benazir Bhutto, and I couldn’t help reacting.] Yes, like that. How horrible that this kind of thing has happened so many times.
NICK: Will there be all colors of people at the service?
MAMA: Yes, I’m sure there will.
NICK: I want to go. I want to see the many colors of people.
MAMA: Well, this won’t be like the Muppets! It’ll only be people of the colors real people come in, like the people we see every day on the bus and on the street.
NICK: But at our church, it’s only light-skinned people mostly.
He’s right. Out of about 100 people in our church, maybe 5 are African-American and 2 Asian-American. But I’d had no idea he had ever noticed!
As he gets older, I plan to show him more about the civil rights movement. I was exposed to a lot of it from an early age–for example, the photo of young teenagers plastered against a wall by a fire hose is burned into my mind–and that was good for me. It’s hard to see, painful to know that, in my very own country, anyone ever thought any of that was okay, but it’s important to face it and think about it. It was a time when what had seemed acceptable was revealed as horribly wrong, and people who saw that truth stood up for it and changed things that had seemed unchangeable. People killed Dr. King, and we’ll always mourn him, but they couldn’t kill his ideas or the hope he gave us. We still have lots of work to do to make things better, and he is one person who showed us that we can.
UPDATE: When Nicholas was 8, he commemorated Dr. King by making a board game, Martinopoly.