Every year my young children and I have the “Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?” conversation. I usually frame our talk around the “I have a dream” speech themes “I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Every year my children are baffled by this and can’t really grasp that the entire country was filled with venomous hate that kept races separate when MaDear and Papi were growing up. On most days, their disbelief is a comforting sign of progress. On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s passing we had deeper discussions of segregation and apartheid and they expressed even deeper disbelief. I can’t fault them. I have chosen to raise them in a world community that stands on the shoulders of Dr. King’s legacy.
Last week The Honorable Frankie Muse Freeman and Dr. William Danforth visited The French School. These two civil rights legends were contemporaries of Dr. King and have worked on local and national civil rights since the 1940s. In a conversation with our 5th grade students, they asked students about their extra-curricular activities, their upcoming trip to France, current class projects, and how they decided to come to our school. Our 5th graders in turn asked about life when they were children. Dr. Danforth and Ms. Freeman both described their segregated upbringing, their outstanding academic success, and their commitment to social justice. Our work at SLLIS is only possible because of courageous risk-takers like Ms. Freeman and Dr. Danforth who have been fighting for our rights for generations.
Observing Dr. King’s birthday has taken different turns during different phases of my life. Growing up Black in Louisiana, observance was an act of civil disobedience. My mother organized read-ins at her office, we went to rallies and community talks and advocated for a national holiday in Dr. King’s honor. Every year at this time I break out in to “Sing, celebrate, sing, sing, celebrate, celebrate! For a king celebrate (everybody in the plaaaace!)*” and recall the debates that we had in school about whether Dr. King would want us to celebrate or serve in his honor. Today I know that we can and should do both. His work continues and we have an obligation to examine our lives and commit to even greater social justice.
As an undergraduate student at Washington University, the commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday marked the start of the new semester. Each year we returned to St. Louis early enough to “come home” for this celebration and call to action. Tonight my children and I will go home to Graham Chapel for fellowship and reflection on “The Prophetic Voice: What Does it Call You to Do?”
In whichever ways your family chooses to commemorate Dr. King’s life and legacy, I hope that you have the opportunity to register the disbelief of our children’s generation and raise their expectations of our next steps as a community.
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” – Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Peacefully and with love,