They talked about Martin Luther King Jr today in Jack’s preschool class. He came home singing, “Martin King Luther… Martin King Luther…” and running around like a crazy boy. The lesson had clearly had an impact on him but I just didn’t know how. So I jumped in with both feet.
“Do you know who Martin Luther King was?”
“Yes. He was a boy but he’s dead.”
“That’s right. What else did your teacher tell you about him?”
“I don’t remember.” Resumes the running and the singing, “Martin King Luther! Martin King Luther!”
The story of Martin Luther King is full of those tough truths I try to protect my children from: racism, murder, hate… I was standing at a mothering crossroad. I had a choice: leave him to run around until he tired of his game or explain the story of MLK Jr so he could understand it. I dove in.
“Jack, do you want to know the story of Martin Luther King?”
He paused in his running and came close to me before answering, “Yes.”
“Okay. A long time ago, things were not fair in America. Do you know how some people have different color skin than we do?”
“Yes! Like Mrs. X.” (his teacher)
“That’s right. Well, when things weren’t fair in America, people with dark skin weren’t allowed to do the same things as people with light skin like us. They couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, swim in the same pool, sit in the front of buses, or go to the same schools. And the schools they had to go to were very bad schools. It was very unfair, but that was the way it was.”
“Why was it like that?”
“That’s just the way it had always been. People didn’t know any better. But Martin Luther King didn’t think it was fair and he talked to lots and lots of people like the President and he made them see that it wasn’t fair. He made them make everyone equal.”
“But that made some bad guys really mad.”
“Because they wanted things to stay unfair. They didn’t want to share what they had with people with different colored skin. They were bad guys. And they were really mad at Martin Luther King so one of them killed him.”
“With a gun.”
“Because he was a very bad guy.”
“And then what happened?”
“Well, the police put him in jail until he died. That’s what the police do to the bad guys.”
The conversation moved on to an indepth dicussion of jails and bad guys and eventually died off. Hours later, as he was playing Legos, I overheard him saying, “I’m Martin Luther King. I make people equal.”
Miraculously, he took away the lesson I intended to give him from our talk. Instead of focusing on the murder, the guns, the bad guys – he was impressed by equality and civil rights. Looks like this time, diving in was the right choice.
I hope they don’t talk about the Iraq War in school anytime soon!