The year was 1994, I was entering the 7th grade. My mom and I, had just moved to a new neighborhood in Michigan. My new school was very different from the schools I had previously attended. There were a lot more people who looked like me, and beyond that there were kids from all over the world. There were more faiths beyond Christianity. Our new neighborhood had churches, temples, and mosques. I have to admit, at the time I was so amazed that there was much more than just black and white.
In my new neighborhood we acknowledged a lot of holidays and was often out of school because of them, however my first Martin Luther King Holiday at my new school, it was not a recognized district holiday. Students that looked like me, would just accept an absence to celebrate the holiday…
I would have expected this from my previous school district, I was one of 6 black students in the entire school, I was often called out of my name (several racial slurs), and was asked by my second grade teacher if I thought a woman or a black man would ever be president. My response to her, was not in my life time…(I look back now, and why would a second grader have to answer that question, and be so discouraged that no one who looked like me would ever have the audacity to be president). I was discouraged because I knew that people who looked like me were barely accepted as leaders in our society. My mother grew up in the South…as a child I would ask her how it was when she was a little girl. My mother shared a story of when she was around 10 years old, she was walking to the store, in a little town in Mississippi…there were workers taring the road, when she walked passed them, one of the workers threw tar on her blue dress. (What kind of a person attacks children?). So knowing that only occurred a few decades before I was in the 2nd grade, I knew our society at a young age had so far to go.
Back to the 7th grade in my new school with much more diversity…In 1994 so many students called in on MLK holiday, that the district had to respond. I don’t remember all of the details, but several mothers got together and was successful at getting the Holiday recognized. By the time we were in 8th grade, the entire district had the day off, and the birth of United We Walk was born. In 1995, on Martin Luther King Day, we would start the day with a march from the middle school to the High School, and once we entered the High School, there was a program remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, we also celebrated the diversity we were so fortunate to have. I was so proud to be a part of district that continued this new found tradition each year. In my senior year I had the honor of being a student co-chair for the walk. High School was ages ago, but it is amazing how in 1994, 31 years after the March on Washington, students and parents took a stand in something that they believed…and was successful at impacting an entire district. The mothers/parents who put in the effort, had such great vision, they created something to show why the holiday was not just a day off…it was a celebration of the Dream that Dr. Martin Luther King had of all people coming together for peace, tolerance, and understanding. I am amazed of what United We Walk has evolved to. here
The experiences we had in the district with so much diversity, prepared me for life. I learned to get to know people beyond race or religion. I was able to experiment with different culinary food at an early age. I can remember having open dialogue about each others background, and no one was offended for genuine curiosity. Of course we experienced some ignorance and hate, but the overall experience of attending a school with so much diversity at an early age gave me a wealth knowledge. I do not make assumptions about others who are not like me. It taught me to look at a person as an individual and not a whole group or stereotype. The experience made me want to learn about other cultures and histories, and still be proud of my own. Most importantly, I realized that the world is much smaller than what I initially believed.
When I became a parent it taught me that children “learn what they live,”…We did not want our kids to learn hate, or intolerance. We have taught our children that there are bad people in this world, but their color, race, religion, or country does not make them bad. Horrible behavior is learned and taught by parents, and by other figures that children, young people, look up to.
An example of learned behavior…when my daughter was in the 3rd grade, she started a new school, her previous school was more diverse, however in this new school she was 1 of 10 people of color in the school. Within the first week at that new school, she asked my husband and I if she was black? When she asked me that question, it occurred to me…1. We truly did not describe people by color in our household, we often referred to people by name, or personality. 2. What happened in school, where 3rd graders are talking about color and race, instead of how nice a person is?
I am not naive, and at the time have exposed our daughter to black history (books, museums exhibits..a few pictures below) and other histories…but until 3rd grade, our daughter looked at people as just people, not as the white, black, indian, asian, latin, etc., kid. As a society, why cant we teach our children to look at a persons values, character, kindness, and intellect, to describe them. We are so much more than just gender and race.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, was a figure of something much bigger. He was not the only person in the civil rights movement who was striving for change. However, he had a true gift of getting people together for the greater good. (One of my favorite Ted Talks on Leadership references Dr. MLK By: Simon Sinek.) In the 39 years Dr. Martin Luther King was on this earth, he inspired action, he accomplished more in his young age, that many of us could dream of. Because of his ultimate sacrifice, and many others at the time. We are able to vote, enter into public venues, attend diverse schools, excel in corporate America, or entrepreneurship. (note: Not because of our gender or race, but because we have the talent, the intellect, and work ethic…no special treatment…we just have a chance to show what we can do). I do not take that for granted, especially if I have family members who were directly impacted (my mom, and other family members) by the hate, the discrimination, the racism, being overlooked for opportunities when they were well deserved.
On the Monday off on Martin Luther King Holiday…lets not view it as just another day off. Let’s view it as a day of sacrifice, progress, and vision. Let’s reflect on how far our nation has come, and how far we need to go. Let’s attend a local event…visit a museum that has an exhibit on the civil right movement….Maybe create an experience where your family can learn about the past…and what we can do to continue to live out Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream….
- History has demonstrated many groups have had to make the ultimate sacrifice for others to excel in life.
- Diversity should be celebrated..learn something new about someone who does not think or look like you.
- Do not pass judgement or stereotypes of a group because of the terrible actions of a small percentage of the group.
- Don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations, especially if it can help you gain a better understanding of peoples beliefs and values. There is a reason why people say and do things.
- If you encounter someone who is hateful and ignorant…do not let their stereotypes of you be true…Take a lesson from Dr. MLK, and other civil rights leaders…they chose peaceful demonstrations, instead of violence. By being peaceful and not retaliating, the message of hate showed via the media woke a lot of people up.
- My second grade self was completely wrong, and I am no longer discouraged of what I or any other smart, talented, ambitious, woman or person of color can become. We owe it to those who fought, and sacrificed so much for us, and for that I am thankful.
Do you have the courage initiate dialogue to gain insight? What are you doing on this Holiday to remember the Dream? What lessons have you learned about accepting diversity?