Preface: Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It’s a designated 24 hours where kids get off school, museums are free, and rarely is anything learned about the man being honored. My entire public school education reduced Martin Luther King, Jr., to four words: “I have a dream.” When I entered college, I could recognize those words. I could conjure the cadence of his voice out of complete silence, and I even teared up a little when I heard him speak. But when I entered college, I seriously thought that dream had been fulfilled. That’s what I had been taught. We were living Martin Luther King’s dream. How nice.
(I was also taught that men and women earned equal wages. Hah.)
The truth is: after Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, the F.B.I. felt he was such a threat that they initiated one of the largest surveillance operations in history to spy on him. He refused to compromise what he believed in to make himself more palatable to white moderates. He was anti-war, anti-poverty, and anti-capitalist. He knew the system was broken. After years of trying to integrate his dream into American life, he began to wonder whether he was “integrating into a burning house.” When King was assassinated in 1968, much of the United States was still racially divided, and supporters of the status quo sighed in relief. They seized his legacy, sanitized all the radicalism, and professed an end to racism. They erected statues, named streets in his honor, and even established a federal holiday. They went to work, and we forgot.
If Martin Luther King were alive today, he would be turning 86. If Martin Luther King were alive today, most of us probably wouldn’t be quoting him. There is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.
I won’t pretend that I am an expert on the American civil rights movement. I’m not. But here is some good reading if you’re looking to learn something about Martin Luther King today:
excerpts from The Radical King
Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution by Martin Luther King Jr.
When I woke up this morning, I was honestly disappointed that I was going to be at work all day. I knew there were protests that I wanted to join in Cleveland. I didn’t want to listen to people telling me we live in a post-racial society and that we’re living Martin Luther King’s dream and not be able to engage. I wanted to be free to write and talk about what I believed in, not confined to a customer service role where I had to make nice.
On top of it all, I had created an exhibit on the civil rights movement that I was afraid of. I was afraid that no one would look at it, that I would watch thousands of people breeze past replica 1960s protest signs and text about the intersectionality of the civil rights movement for the allure of an old carousel and historic cars. Incidentally, I was also afraid that people would look at it. I am not an expert on the subject, and I am terrible at debate. I cry too easily when confronted. I was afraid people might roll their eyes and say “Oberlin,” with that particular tone that seems to simultaneously explain and diminish my passion. I was afraid parents and kids would reject the craft, which asked them to make their own protest signs about issues they cared about. I was afraid visitors would complain about the text around the exhibit. I was afraid. I was afraid. I was afraid…
Here’s what happened instead: I went to work and saw my signs around the museum, and my heart swelled with pride. My boss credited me with the work, and I tried to hide behind my co-workers, but the anticipated resentment never came. As I walked through the museum to get a drink, I heard two adults discussing a sign about black feminism, about how they hadn’t learned of any of that information before. I heard a child reading aloud about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and say how sad they were that those four young girls were killed. I even saw people taking pictures of my work. I started to relax.
At the craft table, things were busy. Some kids, when I asked if they knew what day it was, responded with “Monday,” but most of them knew it was Martin Luther King Day and not just a random day off school. I asked one little girl if she knew who Martin Luther King was, and she told me everything she knew about him as she colored. “He loved his grandma,” she said. “They liked to sit on the porch and talk. He was born on January 15th. His dream was that his daughters would live in a world where they would be judged by their character rather than their color. My best friend is white, so I think Martin Luther King would be happy.”
Most kids, as it turns out, have a lot of things they care about and were happy to sit down and think hard on their day off. Talking to them, as it turns out, was just what I was looking for in lieu of protesting outside. I watched toddlers proclaim that all weapons should be broken and advocate for all animals (not just the cute ones). I listened as one teenager told me she picked the colors black and brown for her sign against modern slavery because “black is beautiful.” She beamed with pride when I told her I could tell she was a deep thinker and could make a difference in the world. Another girl told me about how she collects soap and shampoo to donate to homeless shelters, and how she thinks working together is important to enact change. Kids told me about their favorite books while they made signs to support Little Free Libraries and reading. They told me why they recycle, why they think bullying is wrong, why boys should be able to play with dolls and like the color pink, why there should be more parks, why everyone deserves a loving family. I’m telling you…if you’re ever losing faith in humanity, talk to a kid about what they care about and how they think the world could be a better place. Because. Damn.
While trying to teach people how to more meaningfully engage with the past, I learned a lot about the future. Sometimes we can get so caught up in our own adult selves with our own adult problems that we forget there’s a whole generation after us. We think they’re just kids, so we talk down to them. We worry because they play with iPads and dress like adults, but they’ll be the ones dealing with the world we’ve properly broken for them. If they’re half as smart and thoughtful as they were today when they grow up, I can only hope they have the chance to fix what we bashed to bits.
Despite all the cool things that happened at the museum, my favorite interaction actually happened after hours. When it was all said and done, my co-workers headed home. I headed to Chipotle.
What happened was this: There was one girl who made two signs. The first was serious, something about the environment, but the other really spoke to me. Jokingly, she made a silly sign about how you don’t mess with your sister’s Chipotle. We all laughed, but something inside me snapped. The rest of the day, all I could think about was how great Chipotle would taste after a long, hard day at work. Kids were telling me about their passions, but all I could think about was Chipotle, so I decided to go to the one around the corner from the museum after work.
As I walked though the door, the Chipotle girl was there with her family. It was destiny. I ordered my burrito bowl and gathered the courage to approach them. I paid for my food, took a breath, and walked over to their booth. “I’m sorry,” I said, holding up my to-go bag, “but your protest sign really inspired me.”
We all laughed again, and then I told them I had to go because I seriously needed to shove all my food in my mouth ASAP. We laughed some more, but I was already turning towards the door. Although it was beyond frustrating at the time, I’m so grateful for the extra few seconds it took me to realize the door was a push not a pull, because I heard the most amazing thing from where the girl was sitting with her mom.
“See, mom! Protesting does work!”
There you have it, folks. From the mouths of babes…