Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has a very special place in my heart. I love that it is a day for service. I love that it celebrates non-violent political and social change. I love that it celebrates not just an American hero, but a particularly Christian hero. I love the stories of all the people upon whose shoulders Dr. King stood. And I love the way it forces me each year to evaluate my obligations to those who came before me and those who are yet to come.
I am the proud and humble holder of a degree in Black Studies. The time I spent working on that degree was a pivotal one in many ways. I learned what it felt like to be a minority in the classroom, and I began to be honest with myself about my own racism. But one of the most lasting effects it has had on me is giving me a strong sense of duty. In every class I took, we studied the words and deeds of heroes, such as Dr. King, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Dubois, Septima Clark, Zora Neale Hurston, Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. As diverse as the people we studied were, there was one message that came through loud and clear (and was continually echoed by our professors).
We owe so much to the sacrifices made by those who came before us. We stand on their shoulders.
It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day craziness of life, but each Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the debt I owe, the obligation I have, comes back to me. What will I contribute to this march for justice?
On Sunday, I led a lively discussion with first, second and third graders about Moses, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ruby Bridges. They enjoyed talking about Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the things they had in common. (“What color was Moses?” and “Were Moses and Dr. King friends?” were two of my favorite questions. Clearly we still have a little work to do on time-lines in my Sunday School class.) But the kids really settled in and their eyes got very big during the discussions about Ruby Bridges. Six year olds can make history? That was something to consider. I left feeling that I need to be doing a better job of teaching my children history. If discussions of emergency procedures, alcohol and drug use, and good nutrition can’t just be left to teachers to cover, neither can our American history. Like the other topics, it is too important and kids need to hear it from their parents.
On Monday, I was involved in a youth discussion about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Christmas Sermon on Peace.” I asked for examples of non-violent methods used during the Civil Rights movement. Only one of the students could provide an example. My first thought was that the schools are letting these kids down. My second thought was that, once again, this information is too important to leave up to only their teachers. My kids need to be hearing it to me.
So what will I contribute to this ongoing march for justice? In the long run it is hard to say. But in the coming year, I plan to talk to my children more about the amazing people who came before them and the sacrifices they made. This year I won’t just insist that they write thank-you notes, I will also teach them how to write “Letters-to-the-Editor.” This year I want to make sure they know as much about the records of the candidates for office as they do about the records of basketball teams. This year we will not only review who you call if you see a fire, we will review who you call if you see injustice or something that can be improved. We will have conversations about the importance of exercise and the importance of marching. We will talk about not using drugs or alcohol and about boycotting unjust companies. This year I am adding citizenship skills to the list of necessary skills for my kids, right along with cooking meals and doing laundry.
I did not go into this weekend looking for more things to add to my parental to-do list, but I realize it is necessary. Some things are too important to leave only to the schools to teach. Some things kids need to hear from their parents. It is the least I can do to honor those upon whose shoulders I stand.