MLK week

At Kidling’s school on Wednesday, they had an assembly for MLK. I took lunch late and hurried over so I could watch it. It’s one of the few things I miss about being a SAHM. When I was a SAHM, I made it to everything: playdates, driving him to friends birthday parties, school plays and assemblies, parent-teacher conferences, etc. etc. Now I pick and choose and rush to be there on time.  But I digress.

Kidling had a line that he wrote himself, a precept. They came up with the idea of having the kids in his class quote precepts (that they either wrote themselves or found in a book) from one of MLK’s speeches. Kidling’s precept was,

You can shine no matter who you are, because you’re a firecracker.

Yes. He appears to have conflated Robots and some pop song lyrics. It was cute. I took video. Anyway, After Kidling’s class wrapped up their presentation, the next grade stepped up. Basically, the next few presentations were more focused on MLK — one class read one of his sermons, another class read a selection that included quotes from various children of the 1960’s who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott and other protest events of the time.

As so often happens with these sorts of recitals, there were a few main speaking parts, with the chosen speakers stepping forward to clearly enunciate their lines into a microphone. Most of the selection was read as a chorus, with all the children in the class chiming in together. I was slightly discomfited by the fact that even though this school is fairly diverse, the speaking parts were predominantly given to the white kids.

I say predominantly because I cannot specifically recall a minority speaking, but (to be fair) I only began really paying attention about halfway through the presentations. After my son did his bit, I started playing solitaire on my phone, and I only tuned back into the assembly when it occurred to me that it seemed like only white kids had the speaking parts.

Now, this school is military, so it’s pretty diverse– white, black, Asian, Hispanic, etc. etc. I just figured it would be a really even mix of white/ black/ Asian/ Hispanic for the speaking parts; not mostly just white kids, is all I’m saying. There were enough of children of all ethnicities that it felt like the speaking parts should have been more evenly dispersed.

Then again, maybe that was intentional– maybe the teachers were trying to help the white kids internalize the experience of discrimination by having them read the words of those long-ago children who boycotted the buses and marched in support of MLK, I dunno. Seems like a pretty generous reading of the circumstances, though. I mean, being passed over for speaking parts would also (presumably) teach that lesson.

Or maybe the teachers were afraid of being accused of favoritism/ “reverse racism” if they gave the speaking parts for this assembly to minorities. Or maybe the other kids were offered speaking parts and declined them for whatever reason. I don’t know, clearly. I didn’t direct this assembly.

I’m just saying the presentation kind of struck me as off. Seems like the voices of people of color should be the voices front and center when discussing this history, and the present impact of MLK’s civil rights movement. Kinda like you’d (presumably) center the voices of women on Women’s Day (not men), or Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day (not Nazi’s, or neo-nazis, or whatever), or returned soldiers on Veteran’s Day (not draft-dodging politicians)– that kinda thing.

Then in my Saturday class, we watched a film about the Memphis Sanitation workers strike and MLK’s assassination. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the class.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I learned a lot of things about MLK’s assassination that I hadn’t previously been aware of. I’ve never bothered to really delve into recent history, like with civil rights and stuff– I think on some level I’m extremely uncomfortable with the realization that people I know and love (like my parents) were alive during this era and more than likely perpetuating (even if through inaction) the racism and bigotry that resisted desegregation and equal rights. There’s something nauseating about knowing that your parents didn’t stand on the right side of history, and possibly didn’t “stand” at all during that time– that they may have just ducked their heads and tried to ignore it all.

Anyway, I learned MLK was in Memphis for the Sanitation Workers Strike, and that the Memphis Sanitation Workers went on strike two years after attempting to organize. They had gone on strike right after organizing, but were coaxed back to work with the promise that their working conditions would improve and their demands would be discussed once they went back to work. That didn’t happen.

Their wages were so low that even at full time hours, a Sanitation worker still qualified for welfare. Employees had no health insurance, sick leave, or vacation leave. They did not receive sick pay. If they were injured on the job, they were fired. The strike occurred specifically after a malfunctioning truck (which the employees repeatedly notified management about) was not repaired or decommissioned and ended up brutally crushing two employees. So 1,300 garbage men went on strike.

Striking sanitation workers.

At that time, due to the poor working conditions, the sanitation workers were a primarily black workforce. Although Memphis had peacefully desegregated, an informal segregation persisted and affirmative action wasn’t a thing yet. Black men were simply not considered or hired for the positions with higher pay and better working conditions, so they ended up in the low wage, no benefits, poor working conditions type of positions.

Anyway, so they went on strike. Following MLK’s advice, their protest was a peaceful one: Aside from simply not going to work, they and their supporters also would march peacefully through the streets of Memphis, wearing signs with statements such as, “I am a man.” (with the correlation that as a man with equal rights under the law, they should be treated accordingly).

So MLK came to Memphis to lead them in a march, but by the time he arrived various factions within and without the movement had the city tense and rumbling with the potential for riot. The white community was referring to MLK as a dangerous instigator and bemoaning how the striking sanitation workers were putting the health and welfare of their city at risk. Early on, the city council had agreed to recognize the Sanitation workers union and negotiate fair working conditions, but under pressure from the Mayor had backed away from that promise.

As the months had passed and conditions had grown more tense, Mayor Henry Loeb had pointed the finger continually at what he perceived as the intransigence and selfishness of the black community, both for going on strike and supporting the strike. He insisted that once the Sanitation workers returned to the job, he would be willing to talk with them — an assertion that was not at all supported by past experience.

Within the black community, there were several agitators who felt the tactic of nonviolence was not achieving the goals of the Civil Rights Movement quickly enough, and promoted change through violence and force. As the months went on and the simple demand for fair wages and safe working conditions were ignored, many supporters of the strikers (both white and black) began to be convinced toward this viewpoint.

The end result of all this tension was that when MLK went down to lead the march in Memphis, it broke out in a riot. MLK and the other non-violence advocates left the march. Police brutality was rampant, and ultimately the National Guard was called in to restore peace. Memphis was placed under temporary martial law.

The FBI already considered Martin Luther King to be “the most dangerous man in America,” and the events in Memphis helped in spreading that impression. The media said MLK couldn’t control “his” movement, much was made of how MLK had “fled” his own march, and the event was one more weapon in the toolbox of those arguing against civil rights. MLK determined he had to return to Memphis and lead successful peace march. So he returned to Memphis. He never led that second march — instead he was assassinated by James Earl Ray.

The contrasts between the two men are stunning: Martin Luther King was an educated man, a preacher, a family man, and clearly a leader. He was compassionate and nonviolent; he stood up for what he believed in. He was a benefit to everyone who knew him, to society, and indeed to the world at large.

James Earl Ray had dropped out of school at age 15 and joined the Army. After World War II ended, he returned to the U.S. and over the years was convicted of a series of crimes, including armed robbery, burglary, mail fraud, and various instances of theft. He escaped from prison and moved to Mexico, but returned to the U.S. when he was unlucky in love. In March of 1968, he bought the weapons to assassinate King. Ray believed that the governor of Alabama would eventually become President of the United States and Ray would be pardoned for the murder.

Essentially, the world was deprived of an amazing human being and left with criminal scum. According to the social mores still prevalent at the time, MLK was considered a dangerous threat to society because his skin was black and he spoke for equality; and James Earl Ray believed he was superior to MLK because of such a facile and superficial difference as skin color.

So that’s what I learned on Saturday: why MLK was in Memphis, that the FBI considered him a dangerous threat, and who his murderer was. In contrast to Kidling’s assembly, it really highlighted exactly how sanitized and cleaned up our chaotically messy history is for children. In my son’s assembly, there was no real discussion of racism or white male power, let alone the concepts of privilege and civil disobedience. There was no mention that a branch of the federal government considered this man of peace to be a dangerous threat, or that many local city and state governments were resisting desegregation and refusing to protect their black constituents.

That stuff is ugly and uncomfortable, and raises too many questions. So, like me with my edging around the civil rights movement in my historical research binges, we edge around the ugly spaces of our shared history. We say Martin Luther King was fighting against inequality, but we carefully don’t specify the ugly reality of that inequality. We explain that he was assassinated, but we don’t specify that the man who assassinated MLK believed the government would pardon him and he would be recognized as a hero.

Recent research has shown that discrimination is the default of the human race. It is not a learned trait, that by not discussing will simply be erased from our collective consciousness. It is, in fact, a means of differentiating “other”, of determining who is yours — your family/ tribe/ team. Who to defend, who to defend against. It is an evolutionary response that made sense in those long-ago days of caveman and Neanderthal interactions, but is unnecessary and in fact detrimental to a civilized society in these modern times. The study I referenced above had two especially notable excerpts in it:

  1. A preschool class of children was divided into two groups — not based on physical features, but instead by shirt color. One group was assigned blue shirts, the other assigned red shirts. No other lines were drawn. The red shirts and blue shirts still played, napped, ate, and studied together. The teachers did not differentiate between the groups. Still, the children began to self-segregate, and when researchers asked the children what they thought of the “red shirts” or the “blue shirts,” the children would feel that those who shared their shirt color were nicer/ smarter/ more fun to be around. This experiment showed researchers that in an attempt to understand the world around them, children categorize, and they do so by obvious markers of difference (like ability/ disability; male/ female; white/ non-white).
  2. The second bit of information that really hit me was that non-white parents speak to their children about race generally before the age of 5 because they have to. Because their child experiences racism — perhaps in school, perhaps while shopping with their parents, perhaps observing it in the media — and the parents need to explain this to their children. It is an unfortunate fact of life. White parents do not talk to their children about race, and in fact tend to shush or hush their children when the kids ask about race.

Picture it: A little white girl in a store, sees a black woman and tugs on her mom’s hand. Says, “Mommy, why is her skin so dirty?” The mom, blushing, shushes her daughter, perhaps promises to talk about it later. Later never comes, but a message has been sent nonetheless: This topic is off-limits. This topic is shameful. This topic is not to be discussed. Without parental guidance, the child must draw her own conclusions about race and what it means, all with the specter of her parent’s apparent disapproval hovering over the topic.

White parents need to start talking to their kids about race and racism, too. It’s an uncomfortable discussion, and one rife with minefields and perhaps unrecognized, discomfiting suppressed racism. But it’s a necessary discussion if we truly want to make a better future for our children — all our children.


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