This month, we celebrate the accomplishments of revered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You’d have a hard time finding a child in America who isn’t familiar with Dr. King and his role as a preacher and activist. He is an integral part of U.S. history and he is, rightfully, celebrated for his accomplishments and for modeling civil disobedience in the face of oppression.
I remember when my bonus sons learned about him for the first time in school. Well, it wasn’t the first time they’d learned about him, but it was the first time they really understood his story. One twin came home and said, “We learned about MLK and why we have a holiday to celebrate him.” My husband and I exchanged a look and then asked the 6-year-old to tell us what he’d learned.
He explained (in the long and roundabout way kids tell stories) that Martin Luther King was a leader who said it was wrong to treat Black people “badly” because of the color of their skin. That all people should get along and love each other, and no one should be treated in a “bad way” because of the color of their skin. He paused there, and we thought the story was over. We started to respond when he quickly said, “But white people didn’t like that so they shot him. He died.”
He looked horrified. He looked at us and asked, “Why would they do that?”
We were caught off guard. We had no idea how to respond. How do you explain to a child — or to anyone, for that matter, that standing up for love and equality in a non-violent way would actually anger people enough for them to kill you.
That was the day we started the lessons on white rage in our home. That, as James Baldwin said in 1963, MLK’s message is undercut by “a society that has always glorified violence, unless a Negro has a gun.” That a great double standard exists in this country. Fighting for freedom, even non-violently, can be a death sentence for a Black person.
Fast forward to 2020 and 2021. Our now 12-year-olds experienced the trauma of George Floyd’s murder, and they witnessed the aggression against the people who protested and marched against police brutality in the wake of his murder. They then tuned in to the news in early January and watched an armed, violent, zip-tie-toting, noose-erecting mob storm the Capitol building and walk away unharmed. How do you explain that to the children?
My husband and I lie in bed at night and talk about how we should talk to our children about these disparities. We teach our children to stand up for the things they believe in. We teach our children to stand against human rights violations and oppression.
We teach our children to defend the poor, weak, and innocent, but we also have the unpleasant task of teaching them that doing those things, as a Black person in America, will lead to acts of aggression or violence against them, even possibly incarceration or death.
The truth is that MLK’s dream is still very much a dream. Our children are still judged by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character. The truth is that the same violent white mobs that terrorized Black people by dragging them out of their homes in the middle of the night, burning their bodies, cutting off and out their body parts, and hanging them from trees are still more protected than Black people who mobilize and march against injustice.
That’s the conversation we’ll be having in our home — whether it’s MLK Day, Black History Month, or any day of the year. Because #blacklivesmatter.