Regular Life

Regular Life

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on. – Robert Frost

Comments on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

First, I want to make clear that I am not here to argue the merits of observing or not observing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Some businesses are closed, and some are not. I happen to work for one that is, save for a skeleton crew of support staff for those few customers choosing to remain open.

My experience growing up was very different from my son’s. Except for a total of three years that I spent in other towns before moving back to my hometown, I never saw a face in school or anywhere else in town that was not Caucasian. Unless you count the folks who owned the local Chinese restaurant.

I posted the following as my Facebook status on Saturday at 3:12 p.m. Central:

Does anybody have a young child who knows that they are out of school Monday in honor of a man who fought peacefully against racism? How far back do you go in explaining why he needed to do that in the first place? How young is too young? Why?

I received several comments — from my first-grade teacher, others who grew up there, and a young lady I met in one of those other towns. Each had a unique experience regarding attitudes toward race, and I thought it warranted sharing out here.

Before those showed up on my page, however, I discussed it with our 7-year-old son (a second-grader). I went back to Facebook and followed up with my own comment.

I asked him what they learned about MLK, Jr. He said that brown people were not allowed to sit up front, and had to use different bathrooms, and that MLK, Jr.’s parents’ house was bombed.

“Did you know that, Daddy?” he asked, now speaking very softly, as if setting the tone of the conversation.

I fibbed a bit and said I did. “Did you learn why someone bombed their house?” I asked.

“Because they were mad at them,” he said, still gently.

A very simplistic explanation, but accurate. I could tell by his mood that he knew that was no excuse.

“It’s a good thing we don’t treat people like that in the US anymore, isn’t it?” I said.

“It sure is,” he said as he reached for a Hot Wheels car and un-paused a show featuring a “brown” child making ice cream alongside a “white” child.

My first-grade teacher replied:

Very poignant… and growing up like you and I did, I think we can’t have this discussion early enough! You know, all WE ever knew growing up in H was that white people moved here to escape the “brown” people in their cities and neighborhoods – and sadly, that affected the attitudes of many – for a long time, if not forever. I regret that we grew up in such a sheltered – and often bigoted – environment.

I am old enough to remember “whites only” water fountains in downtown Little Rock and more. Yet somehow, I managed not to buy into this picture. Some of my best friends in college – and favorite students in kindergarten – were black… and they could have been purple for all I noticed or cared. My best friend in 5th grade was Leona – a full-blooded Indian girl in Oklahoma. Maybe that’s where my “tolerance” began.

I’m glad someone is teaching Ben about MLK,Jr. – if only in simplistic terms. Maybe that’s enough for now… as long as more information is provided as he matures enough to handle it. I do think we have to educate our children, in an age-appropriate manner, about the mistreatment of all races… and sadly, that we DO still mistreat them in some corners of America. I am not sure if H even recognizes MLK’s birthday – the doors will be open and school will be in session. Hopefully there will be teachers who will pause and give some recognition to the significance of this day… and begin the process of teaching even the white kids of (that) County about tolerance of ALL people… and peaceful coexistence.

Me:

Great points, D. I am so glad our son is growing up in a neighborhood and attending a school in which he sees all sorts of faces. People are appalled when I tell them of some of the things that were part of everyday conversation in my hometown. I know a lot more about what he was taught simply from asking him this morning. Their class watched MLK, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” and also read other things about him. We conveniently never made it beyond the Reformation after the Civil War in my history classes back in the day. I have no idea whether that was intentional, but it certainly helped everyone avoid lots of potentially stirring conversations, and conflicts between the school and the parents.

A classmate, here called “R,” who also happens to be a teacher, from one of the other towns I briefly called home:

I touch on it with kindergarten. I know our second graders learn a lot. There is a REALLY good movie they watch where a kid travels back in time and meets MLK at various times in his life. I was watching one of the classes once when they watched it and learned so much myself.

My first-grade teacher:

I think that is wonderful that such things as R describes are happening in some classrooms. We do have a handful of black families living in H now, due mostly to the oil and gas industry… and many Hispanics. But I shudder to think how they may be treated in this town by some. Breaks my heart and embarrasses me to no end. My dad occasionally worked with black men on construction crews, and he always talked about what nice men they were, and that influenced me, I’m sure. But I think part of what bothers me about how we grew up was the fact that a point had to be made about someone’s ethnicity or skin color. It wasn’t enough that Pat, Archie, Elihu and Eunice were my friends… they were my BLACK friends! There was about a 5% black population at my elementary school (if that), and somehow most of those children found their way to MY classroom, which was no problem for me… but other teachers felt differently. Well, I can tell you… they missed out on spending 9 months with some great kids!

I think the saddest part is that intelligent people like us had to become adults – or at least college students – before we really heard much about Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and others – and the even sadder part is that some of our children may have to move away to learn more, as well. It certainly won’t be taught in many classrooms in this part of Arkansas. About the most we can hope is that some of our kids will absorb by osmosis as they watch BET and other cable television channels that air programs where Dr. King is mentioned and respected. (heavy sigh)

My first cousin, J, who grew up in the same town:

Well, it depends on the kid. But I think B would get it. I would go as deep as his comprehension would allow. There are some great videos. Probably can see the speech on you tube. The earlier the better.

Me:

Thanks, D. I know what you mean about even feeling the need to mention a person’s skin color or ethnicity when mentioning their positive qualities. Can’t count how many times I heard (and said) “She’s pretty, for a black girl,” lest someone think less of whoever said it. Just ridiculous.

Me:

J, they did watch the speech, as I found out later from B.

T, another classmate from my hometown:

Mark, our schools in south AR will be out for MLK Day, and they covered a fair amount of material on the subject for young children. Sam was telling me about Rosa Parks’s (even though he couldn’t quite remember her name) bus ride. One of the classrooms had a great timeline of events on the outside wall.

When I first started substituting in our schools here I was worried how I might react to such a different environment than the one I grew up in in H, but I’ve learned that people are the same everywhere–they either learn to love or they don’t.

T, that is a great point. When I first lived somewhere else (7th grade), I found the same thing to be true, but probably not at the same level of understanding as you did.

Yet another classmate, A, from my hometown chimed in:

We’ve discussed MLK with (our son) and they learned some about his story in school (although not about bombings thank heavens, he really wouldn’t be able to process that). I know I came home from 1st grade and told my Mom some little boy had said the N-word and didn’t seem ashamed when I told him he shouldn’t use that word. She explained racism and why it was wrong and that we never used that word under any circumstances. She and my Dad also told me about the marches, MLK Jr and later about the riots, hoses, bombings, Parks, Orval Faubus (a family friend) and integration. It was interesting to hear their perspective since they lived through all of it. I had friends at camp who were different colors and parents were adamant that we treat everyone with respect until they proved they didn’t deserve it. It did make me feel a bit like an odd duck in H but certainly helped me fit in at my school in KS.

I don’t know exactly why I decided to post this thread. I know that we didn’t suffer the persecution that those of color have experienced, and that these stories aren’t as riveting as personal accounts of racism victims. We often caught glimpses, of the attitudes that allowed such behavior to go unchecked for decades.

5 Responses to Comments on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

  1. Growing up in New England, we really didn’t see the issues of race like you did down south, but I can remember in the early 60’s, taking a vacation with my brother and parents down south, and seeing the water fountains with “Whites Only” on them, and looking at my mom in a questioning way.
    Then I remember being in a grocery store, and when we got in line, the grocer made all the “non-white” people move aside for us. It was unpleasant to say the least.. and it taught me a great lesson.

    I’ve never had a bigoted bone in my body. I’ve had friends of all colors and races, religions, sexual orientation and beliefs. I treat people based on how they treat others.

    When it comes down to it, we all bleed the same color.

    Permalink
  2. Dave – Thanks for the comment. I don’t know very many people who grew up in that area, and with the few who did I haven’t had an occasion to just strike up a conversation about race. It’s amazing to me that anyone in my generation or older did not grow up hearing the “n” word as an accepted, everyday part of conversation (and I was born in 1970), and sad that anyone in any generation did grow up in that type of atmosphere.

    Permalink
  3. Your commentI was fortunate to grow up in (relatively) liberal northwest Arkansas, where Fayetteville High School was integrated in 1954 (mostly because there was no black HS and the town fathers were tired of paying room and board to send our 4 or 5 black students to Fort Smith). My graduating class had several popular black members, a couple of whom were stellar athletes. More than one of our traditional athletic rivals dropped FHS from their schedules (and didn’t restore FHS until decades later). OTOH, the bus station and the train station had segregated waiting rooms, restrooms, and water fountains until the ’60s. Housing was pretty strictly segregated. Black folks lived in a part of town called “tin cup.”

    When I got to college (University of Arkansas) I discovered that folks from other parts of the state and, indeed, the athletic program of the University, didn’t share the liberal values of the Northwestern part of the state. The “N” word was pretty common and the racist attitudes of some of my classmates bordered on rabid. I can understand how these attitudes morphed into lifelong prejudice. Although the younger generations have made much progress since the day of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson, the legacy of slavery in this country will take more generations to eradicate.

    Old Guy

    Permalink
  4. Mark, how do I get rid of that “Your Comment” which implants itself when I preview my comment before posting?

    Permalink
  5. Haley Bartholomew
    Mrs. Combes
    English 2
    March 15, 2011

    Martin Luther King Jr.

    I have a Dream, the famous speech of Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. A wonderful man born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta GA. U.S. He later died in Memphis TN on April 4, 1968. He was a Baptist minister and social activist who led the civil right movement in the United States for the mid-1950s until his death by assassination. Dr. King was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, for all of his amazing work.

    King came for a comfortable middle-class family. Both Kings father and his maternal grandfather were Baptist preachers. Both of his parents were educated in college and his father succeeded his father-in-law as a pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Martin received a solid education and grew up in a loving extended family.

    King said he would never forget the time when he was 6 years old , one of his white friends announced that his parents would no longer allow him to play with King because he would now be attending segregated schools. And if that wasn’t enough the person he looked up to the most, his dearest grandmother, died of a fatal heart attack. He found this out while he was attending a parade without his parents’ permission, he was 12 at the time and he attempted suicide by jumping from a two-story window

    At age 15, King had entered Morehouse College in Atlanta under a special wartime program to boost enrollment promising high-school students like King. Before he started college, he spent his summer on a tobacco farm in Connecticut; it was his first extended stay away from home. He was shocked at how peacefully the races mixed together there. He sent his parents a letter and on the letter it said, “Negroes and whites go to the same church. I never thought that a person of my race could anywhere I wanted to.” His summer experience only deepened his hatred of racial segregation. He spent the next three years at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester PA. He earned a bachelor degree in 1951

    He soon met Coretta Scott, a native Ablbamian who was studying at New England Conservatory of music. They were married in 1953 and had four children. He had an advantage of being a young well trained man who was too new in town to have any enemies; he was generally respected and it was thought that his family connections and professional standing would enable him to find another pastorate should the boycott fail. Although King’s home was dynamited and his family’s safety threatened, he still continued to lead the boycott until one year later, the busses were desegregated. In the years after his death, he remained the most widely known African American leader of his era. There is now a national holiday for him in his honor in the U.S. and by the building of a King memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C., near the Lincoln Memorial, the site of his famous, “I have a Dream” speech in 1963.

    Permalink

Comments are closed.