Thursday, February 23, 2006

small words, big ideas

This was originally posted on January 18, 2006.

Monday was Martin Luther King Day, and Mary didn't have school. She's only six, so her main focus for the day was getting to watch videos on the couch and wear her pajamas half the morning. I confess I wouldn't have given the day much more thought either, except that she asked on the way to the YMCA that afternoon why she didn't have school.

I thought a minute, took a deep breath, and told her.

A long time ago in our country, when your grandmas and grandpas were as big as you, things didn't work quite the same way they do now. A lot of people thought that if you had a different color of skin, you weren't as good of a person. So kids who looked like your friend Olivia had to be separated from kids who looked like you, just because of what color they were. Pretty silly, huh?

If you had lived in that time, you and Olivia couldn't sit in the same seat on the bus, you couldn't go to the same school, and they wouldn't even let her drink out of the same drinking fountain as you! It was kind of like they thought people with black skins had germs or something, which is really goofy. But a lot of people thought it, and that was how things were in a lot of places.

Well, there were some people who didn't think this was how God meant people to act, and that it didn't really matter so much what color you were. There was one man named Dr. King who thought this, and he thought about it and prayed about it and talked to his pastor about it, and then he started talking about it. He talked to a few people, then a whole bunch of people, and then he got to talk to hundreds and thousands of people right by the Capital Building of the whole country.

He said "I have a dream." Now he didn't mean the kind of dream you have when you're asleep, but the kind of dream where you really, really want something to happen. He wanted our country to be a place where people who were different colors could go to the same schools and sit together if they wanted and drink out of the same drinking fountains and get the same jobs, no matter what color they are. He told all these people about his dream, and a lot of them thought it was a really good idea.

That's where the story was going to end. But then, with the odd clarity young children sometimes have, she asked, "Is Mr. King still alive?"

And I had to tell her the rest of the story.

No, honey, he isn't. Some people didn't like the things he said. Some people got very, very mad about it, and one man got so mad about it that he shot Dr. King with a gun and killed him. That was a very bad thing to do, and they caught the man and made him go to jail, and later he said he was very sorry.

But lots of people were paying attention to the things Dr. King said, and they kept doing the things he wanted to do, even after he was dead. They changed laws and made it so everybody could do the same things no matter what color they were. It's not all the way fixed, but it's a lot better because of the people who listened to him talk that day.

And then we were to our destination, and her rapidly-moving attention shifted to the clock tower on the church next door to the Y, and Dr. King was forgotten.

I hope some seed of that conversation stays in her mind, though. I hope that for now, she is thankful that she and Olivia can be in the same class. I hope that when she is older, she takes her fierce energy and uses it to fight the things Dr. King fought, whether for her life's work or just to make a habit of righting a few of the daily injustices that will still be part of her world.

America is a melting pot, and we will never be fully colorblind. But little girls like Mary and Olivia sometimes grow up to be women like Rosa Parks, and that's something any mother would be proud to see.


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