Learning about MLK

Cooper came home from school yesterday and told me he was learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew that MLK’s birthday was Jan. 15th and that he was “a leader.” I asked Cooper why MLK was so important, trying to probe how much they had learned. He said he didn’t know. Rather than leave it at that, I decided to start talking about MLK, a conversation we’ll continue over the next couple of weeks.

For background, I had an amazing English teacher my junior year of high school. Ms. Romano taught English in an integrated way, and I learned more about history in her class — especially the Civil Rights movement — than I did in my history classes. We watched the entirety of “Eyes on the Prize,” one of the best documentaries of all time (Note: You’ll find age-appropriate activities on the documentary site). Later, in college, I took a History of the Civil Rights Movement class with Julian Bond, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and former head of the NAACP. It was a powerful experience.

Back to Cooper: I asked what he had for snack in school that day. Pancakes, he answered. I asked him what would happen if his teacher, Ms. Dina, only gave the girls pancakes and gave no snack to the boys. How would he feel? Would that be fair? What if only his friends with dark skin got to play on the playground? How would he feel? Is that fair?

Then I explained to him that in MLK’s time, there were parts of the country where people with dark skin and light skin couldn’t use the same bathrooms, go to the same schools, eat in the same restaurants. This wasn’t right and was something MLK and lots of other people tried to change. He was a pastor and knew that we are all God’s children and should be treated equally regardless of what we look like on the outside.

We talked through a timeline of MLK’s life, illustrated by children found…..here. This prompted some questions about why MLK was arrested and went to jail. Living in a world of absolutes, Cooper had a hard time understanding that someone who wasn’t a “bad guy” would spend time in “time out.” We talked about how the laws he broke weren’t right. Going to jail was a way for MLK and the civil rights workers to call attention to this fact, and the laws were eventually changed.

We listened to parts of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which always brings tears to my eyes and talked about how he was a powerful speaker. We discussed how being a pastor had helped train him in public speaking.

I hadn’t planned to start this discussion until next week, but now I’m excited. I think we’ll hit the library soon to look for some books about this theme. Stay tuned.

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