On Monday the boy was thrilled to be sharing his birthday with Dr. King. I explained that we always celebrate Dr. King on Monday and it may not be his actual birthday, but he insisted they were birthday buddies, and I didn't want to squash his enthusiasm.
The kids both came home from school and preschool the week before with Scholastic News issues related to Martin Luther King Jr., and I was thrilled to have a chance to review them together. It reminded me of a part of me that I haven't thought about in a while.
What feels like a million years ago (really, it was 9), I wrote my senior thesis for college on Mississippi Freedom Schools, a part of the Civil Rights Movement. The semester before I took a class on Southern History. My mom is from the south, and I've always found southern culture fascinating. My grandparents grew up with black "employees" in their homes. This fact has been shocking and horrifying to me as I've reflected on it over the years, and recently reading The Help gave me another dose of food for thought regarding my own family history. But back to college, for a period of 4-6 months I found myself immersed in studies surrounding civil rights. It was hard to believe the events that I was reading of happened 40 years before, the ideas of suppression felt so archaic it seemed like it should have been hundreds of years ago.
I spent a small fortune to gather primary documents as I contacted a library in Mississippi and had them send me copies of student newspapers written by the black students of the Freedom Schools. I pored over the documents and cried as I read first hand of little girls who tried to color their skin white, of students who felt ugly and worthless because of their skin, of anger and hopelessness and puzzlement at their mistreatment. I felt puzzled in the same way- how could this have happened? I cried as I read of the new hope found by some students as they learned concepts of freedom, foundational to this country, for the first time. I felt excited for their realizations that maybe these rights could be theirs.
I wrote my paper during a hot summer in our little south-of-campus house made humid by a swamp cooler, and I imagined the oppressive southern heat and humidity experienced during the Freedom Schools. I tried to think about what my role may have been had I been alive during the civil rights movement. Would I have lived in my Northern home and avoided the issue, feeling badly but doing nothing? Would I have been one of those progressive white university students who at great risk traveled to Mississippi to teach in the Freedom Schools? Would I have been a southern lady, troubled about the "situation with the blacks"? I'd like to think I would've been a part of the movement, but at the same time things were dangerous and I don't know if I would have had that kind of courage.
When I presented my thesis I cried. So did several of my classmates who had researched topics from the same era. Those studies changed me. They opened my heart to those around me, inspiring me to judge others "not... by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
I reflected on those words on Monday and thought about all of the other ways that judgment creeps into my life. I may feel comfortable with the color of their skin, but I can list many other differences that make me uncomfortable and wondering how to go about loving others so seemingly different from myself. An embarrassing admission, but as I reflected on Monday I realized I still have a ways to go with acceptance and love and lack of judgment. I'm working on it. I'm not perfect. I think that process of working on it- of learning to love- was part of Dr. King's dream, too.