I started school in the early 70s, a white child in a Boston suburban school that had integrated busing. I wondered what it would be like to have an hour-long bus ride to school, but I gave no thought to why other students traveled so far each day. A few years later, when a special holiday was created to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and our teachers began to talk with us about the civil rights movement, I began to understand things that I was seeing around me.
I was shocked to learn that white and black children had not been allowed to go to school together or even play together. I was relieved to know that someone as courageous as Dr. King had stood up to the injustice – and I was in awe of the pictures of thousands of people who stood behind him at rallies and marches. They were all brave. It made me scared and proud.
I was relieved to know that I wasn’t growing up in that confusing time when children were barred from attending school. But then I started to notice and question other things that didn’t make sense. How come the children from Boston were bused to our schools, but we weren’t bused into Boston schools? Even though black and white children played together, how come we lived in different neighborhoods and why did we have different toys?
My parents did not always know how to discuss these issues with me. But, they were honest and truthful about their own experiences, even when it felt insufficient to me. Sometimes I asked the questions at very embarrassing moments. They compassionately answered my questions as I posed them, and asked me how I thought things should be. I didn’t just want answers, I wanted to make things right.
Fast forward to 2015. Now Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday and the president of the United States is African American. So much progress has been made; we have moved beyond many of the problems that spurred the civil rights movement. Yet, recent events in Ferguson and New York City have made it painfully clear that discrimination, prejudice and inequality based on race are still present.
Why is Dr. King’s work relevant to the issues of today? How do we talk with children about these difficult issues? It’s important that we do not put Dr. King on a pedestal. He didn’t work alone; many people, black and white, old and young, were involved. These leaders and every day heroes of the civil rights movement can be inspiration to us now – there are things that both adults and children can do to help combat racism. That’s why the Museum is committed to celebrating Dr. King’s legacy each year. Through performance, displays and an interactive activity about discrimination, parents and children are given a unique opportunity to discuss these hard issues – about history as well as where children see inequality in their own lives.
Every family will have their own starting point to this conversation. In addition to the Museum’s event there are some excellent resources that might be useful for your family:
How to Teach Kids About What's Happening in Ferguson
This article from The Atlantic has extensive resource lists for teachers and parents including a list of recommended children’s books.
Talking About Racism With White Kids
This post on the The New York Times Motherlode blog also includes links to other posts dealing with race, racism and difficult conversations.
Talking to Our Children About Racism & Diversity
This excellent document developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund provides helpful guidelines for answering hard questions from children and some suggestions of “what you might say when your child says ‘….’”
Join the Museum’s Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, January 19 from 11:30 AM to 4:00 PM. See history come to life through songs and stories during powerful performances of “M.L.K.: Amazing Grace” at 11:30 AM, 1:00 PM and 2:30 PM. Also explore a display of photographs, words and books describing Dr. King’s life and work and take part in a provocative anti-discrimination activity. Learn more.