Tuesday, January 19, 2016

When I Teach The MLK Holiday

Free Photo: MLKWhite Photo of MLK, Martin Luther King JR

I've taught the Martin Luther King holiday to preschoolers for as long as I've been teaching. Sometimes it does, but usually it doesn't emerge from the children, which makes it different than most of what we do and talk about at our school. 

I start the new year by saying, "We've celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Pearl Harbor Day, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Does anyone know the next holiday?" This is how I've introduced all the holidays, of course, and there is typically guessing before someone hits on it, usually by saying something like "King Day!"

I've learned to not then ask the children to share what they know about the day or about MLK because if they remember anything it's usually that he was shot by a man with a gun, which, of course, becomes the focus of our discussion, a distraction from the man's work, and the conversation is hard enough without that.

I strive to focus on the big concepts like "love," "freedom," "fairness," "togetherness," and "non-violence," but it's impossible to get there without also discussing such things as "bigotry," "racism," "slavery," and "violence." As we do, I see the looks in their faces: confusion, anger, and maybe even fear as we look at pictures of segregated water fountains, police brutality, and MLK behind jail bars. I tell them that this is the way the world was when I was a boy, growing up in South Carolina in the early 1960's. I remember the signs that said "White Only." Our neighbors used the N-word without shame. There were two black boys in my entire elementary school. I often pause to ask the group, "Is that fair?" And they answer, "No!"

It's always at some level an unsatisfying experience for me, these weeks of talking about skin color and violence. I know I'm doing a grotesquely incomplete job of it. But I do what I know how to do, showing them the pictures, reading them the words, listening to MLK's voice, and telling my own story. I've told it on this blog before, of having grown up in the segregated world of the American deep South, then taking part in the experiment of court ordered desegregation, being bussed to a black school while most of my white friends were shifted into all-white private schools. I strive to leave the children with a sense of hope. At least the "White Only" signs are gone, we've elected a black President, and we actually celebrate MLK, a man that Time magazine once called "the most dangerous Negro alive." These are all signs of progress even as I'm fully aware that we are still only in the beginning of our journey to the promised land.

Yesterday, I watched the amazing documentary King: A Filmed Record, From Montgomery to Memphis. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this rarely seen film was premiered in 1970 on more than 600 screens around the US for one day only, but has recently been released for general viewing. I don't know why, but it should be required viewing for every American. There is no narrator or musical score, just news footage and sounds from the time. It's both eye-opening and depressing to see the same debates, the same rationalizations, and the same resistance that we see today, just given a new face for our modern times. I came away wishing for another great leader to emerge, yet doubting that it will ever happen again, and realizing that in the meantime, we all have to try to be that person. You can find the documentary online, but I suspect it's available illegally, so I won't link to it. Instead, I'll share this one hour Democracy Now! piece in which long excerpts are included (I couldn't get it to embed, so you'll have to go to the source). As I tell the children when introducing the story of the MLK holiday, it will probably make you mad and sad, but hopefully you'll also be inspired.

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girlgeek said...

I re-read the "I Have a Dream" speach yesterday. I was struck both by how some things (e.g. police brutality) remain such core problems in our society while we seem to have made great strides against others like segregation. As you say, we are still at the beginning of this fight, there are many battles yet to be won, but there is hope.

Nathalie said...

Thank you for this. I spoke to my 4 year old son about MLK Day yesterday in basic terms explaining how during Dr King's time, children with dark skin weren't allowed to go to school, eat, or sometimes even live in the same neighborhood as children with white skin. His response to each and every one of those statements was "that's weird, Mommy." I fear this holiday is now becoming just a "day off" without educating the importance and value of his work to all Americans.

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