Teach Your Children: Civil Rights in America


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Yesterday I took a day off.  I went to church, built a nice fire (not at church, at home in my fireplace) and languished in front of the TV.

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King, the man, the dreamer, the martyr, who gave his life to a cause that unfortunately, I suspect is being somewhat misrepresented in our schools.  History has many iterations.  The passage of time renders events  malleable, subject to change in the telling and retelling, altered by prevalent  socio-political trends. The result over time can be an inaccurate record of world events.

Martin Luther King the icon, the great man we celebrate today was also a mortal man, subject to human weakness.  It’s fitting that we commemorate the good that he did and I don’t mind ignoring the weaknesses.  But in the process of doing so, I do fear that at least our primary schools, by placing so much emphasis on Dr. King,  we can unintentionally marginalize the magnitude of the Civil Rights struggle in the United States and its many unsung heroes.

Black or white, most middle schoolers can explain who Dr, King was.  They also tell you that Lincoln “freed the slaves”.  The names Rosa Parks and perhaps Harriet Tubman may summon recognition.  But how many middle-school students, regardless of race, can describe Brown v. the Board of Education?  What percentage of black students can tell you about James Meredith, the Little Rock Nine, the sit-ins, freedom rides, the Albany Movement or the integration of Mississippi Universities?  How many know about CORE, SNCC and the SCLC?  In fact, how many inner-city youths  know what the NAACP is?  On its face, this seems absurd.  I mean, to me, the NAACP is a household name .  Seems like it’s been around as long as I can remember.  It has.

But recently, when talking to a 14 year-old black kid about MLK day, I mentioned the excitement of convergence of so many historic events at this particular point as we witness the inauguration of America’s first president of African-American descent—things like the MLK holiday and observance of the NAACP’s 100-year anniversary.  He acted as though he hadn’t heard me.  I repeated myself to the same reaction.  Then asked, “Wait a minute,” I said, “You don’t know what the NAACP is, do you?” He said “No”.  Shocked, I asked his 15 year-old sister…same reaction.  The response was the same until I got to the heads of the household.

Yesterday football playoffs were on TV.  Public TV ran “American Experience’s” wonderful series “Eyes on the Prize” all afternoon as HBO presented a celebratory, star-studded, two-hour concert/presentation to honor Obama’s historic inauguration.  I suffered clicker whiplash until I discovered that the Obama extravaganza would be repeated all evening on HBO.  Other than the 4th quarter of the Ravens/Cardinal game, I was happy to watch highlights of the NFL playoffs.  I stuck with PBS and was amply rewarded.

What do you think trumped all in the ratings?  I’m sure you know…  and it wasn’t a social justice documentary or a pageant related to a landmark in the ascendancy to power.  Needless to say but I will anyway, is that my 14 year-old friend knew significant details of all the playoff teams, their strengths, weaknesses, records, all things NFL, but “nada” on the NAACP, as I suspect is the same for the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center.

My point is, my Lilly-white suburban sons each know more about the Civil Rights struggle in this country than this entire family of inner-city blacks.  Part of that is surely related to the emphasis that my wife, Susan and I put on it as they grew up.  The rest is likely due to their schools.

Oh, they have MLK day-related projects.  They observe black history month. But I wonder how much of that is devoted to the struggle v. just MLK and I think it’s up to families to take it upon themselves to supplement what’s being taught in our schools, which may be inconsistent from school to school.

My eldest son had nightmares after I had taken him as a child to a museum exhibit explaining the Civil Rights movement that included graphic pictures of lynchings and a real Ku Klux Klan uniform. My “contact” inner-city family would rather watch Tyler Perry than documentaries discussing the struggle for equal rights.  I don’t say that to knock Tyler Perry, either. It’s just that I took this 14-year old to the same museum exhibit to which I’d taken my sons (he’s my “little brother” through Big Brothers/Big Sisters) and it had little impact on him.  I had to remind him today that we even went.kkk-salute

Is this an anomaly? I certainly hope so. After all, this is but one family.  They may be atypical. Their schools may not represent the norm.  And schools can only do so much.

It’s good to have figureheads, like Martin Luther King but my fear is that by emphasizing him we short-change lesser celebrated heroes like:  Medgar Evers,  Marlie Evers-Williams, James Meredith, Marcus Garvey, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Dian Nash, Andrew Young, Stokely Charnichael and scores of others, not all of whom agreed on tactics but nevertheless worked hard, suffered abuse, beatings, incarceration and murder in the pursuit of their dream and our Nation’s promise.

As we commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King and celebrate a new chapter of our American Experience, I pray that our collective memory is strong for all  those brave men and women who suffered and died so that we may sing Dr. King’s praises today.  To further appreciate the true meaning of Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come,”  as it was performed yesterday, let’s take it upon ourselves to see that these noble stories be remembered and retold.  Parents. assume nothing.  Honor all of those who went before us.  Teach your children. We don’t want these lessons to be forgotten.  Because after all, history forgotten can be history repeated.

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