Teaching My Son About Martin Luther King, Jr. Reminds Me How Much Further We Have To Go‏

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Luther King March

My son learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school last week. He was so animated while explaining what his teacher told him about Dr. King that I decided to seize the moment and go a bit further than the kindergarten level. I found King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on YouTube and let him see it. We have now listened to the speech in it’s entirety three times. He was captivated and asked some amazing questions. Watching it again as an adult, particularly in light of recent events in our nation, was heartbreaking.

When my son innocently asked if Dr. King was killed “because people didn’t like his dreams and his speech” I couldn’t stop the tears that sprung from my eyes. My little boy hit the nail on the head- there were (and still are) people who did not like his dream.

Hearing King’s words and his hopes for his children made my stomach lurch – we have made progress since 1963 but we are far from done. Hearing King speak of African-Americans experiencing police brutality left me sad and hollow. 50+ years later, and it’s still happening. When he spoke of his children not being judged by the color of their skin all I could think of is Tamir Rice being shot on sight for having a pellet gun. I thought of Michael Brown and the on-going struggle in Ferguson. I thought of Eric Garner, dying on the street with his last words being “I can’t breathe.” And then, I looked at my son. In his limited understanding of Dr. King, he thinks everything is fixed. King marched and spoke, changed laws and did bring about great change. I found myself groping for the right words to tell my 5-year old that while yes, Dr. King accomplished a great deal before he was killed, that we still have a ways to go. That fact is sobering and shameful.

Seeing my son absorb this speech and hearing his sweet words about how “Dr. King changed our laws and wanted everyone to be friends” made me think of the mothers of African-American sons. It made me think about how differently they must view this speech and the lens through which they see our progress with justice and freedom for all. We haven’t fully achieved it yet and mothers of African-American sons have to raise them knowing that certain people, even some of our law enforcement officers, will look at them differently. They may assume things about them without any other information but the color of their skin and that means we have not realized the hopes of Dr. King. Not even close.

As I was watching the speech, my eyes full of tears and my heart racing, I kept thinking “who am I to feel this so deeply?” Not only am I white, I am white and grew up in a very nice neighborhood. I went to excellent schools. I had every opportunity in front of me. I have not ever, for even one second of my life, felt oppressed or disadvantaged. Yet, I find myself feeling very strongly for Dr. King and what he set out to do. I feel shame and sadness that this battle is still happening today. I don’t know how to articulate it without sounding patronizing or insincere. But I do know I want my son to hear about Dr. King’s dreams, and to understand the reality of our country today. And I want us both to be agents of change to continue to make things better.

When I think of all that King set out to accomplish and the barriers he sought to tear down, my heart is heavy. Yes, our children as a whole have a better chance of a life free from racial prejudice than any generation before them but the fact is, we are not there yet. As we celebrate Dr. King’s life and his mission this week, I pledge to remember that we are still marching, still striving toward achieving what he fought for. One of the best things we can do is to tell his story to our children. Let them listen, let them watch. To remind them how important it is that we ALL be truly equal.

(Image: William Lovelace/Getty Images)