Education Matters: Today’s Martin Luther King Day

Eighteen years ago, I wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune of my struggle to answer my then 4-year-old son’s questions about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and why we have a day to honor him.

I remember squirming, trying to sort out my thoughts and translate my words into preschool-level understanding – and most important of all, to get it right.

On the one hand, I didn’t want to prejudice him by pointing out that there are differences in people’s skin color. After all, he didn’t seem to notice these differences. Why should I bring it to his attention?

I was afraid to explain about Martin Luther King and his pursuit of equal rights for African-Americans, worried that my son would begin to see skin color in a new way while I wanted him to continue not to see skin color at all.

On the other hand, if he was asking questions, then it was time to educate him.

By carefully choosing my words, and with a bit of luck, my answers might form a filter through which future experiences with people of different races and religions could be viewed positively and with deeper understanding.

We could establish a foundation for basic moral conduct in his life, one where injustice would not be tolerated.

As I pondered my approach, I tried to hear how this would sound.

My first thought is that he would be amazed that people would pay attention to something as trivial as skin color differences. After all, most children do not; prejudice has to be taught.

My second thought was the fear that he would think he’s wrong and it’s alright to make judgments about people based on race. That would be disastrous.

There was nothing to do except take a deep breath and plunge ahead.

“There was a time not long ago when lighter-skinned people made bad rules and wouldn’t let darker-skinned people do the same things they got to do,” I said. “They wouldn’t give them equal rights.”

I told him that some human rules are good, while others are not.

“Equal rights means giving all people the same opportunities in life and letting them do the same things: ride the same bus, sit together in restaurants, drink from the same fountains, live in the same neighborhoods, go to school together, play together, and work together.

“Martin Luther King was a great leader and champion of equal rights. He helped change the rules in a peaceful way that made this country a better place for all people, regardless of the color of their skin.

“Even though African-Americans still struggle for equal rights, there is more tolerance, understanding, and respect for all people because of Dr. King. So we have a special day to remember and honor him.”

I kept it short and held my breath, waiting for his reaction. Had I done a good job? Had I done justice to a great man and a great cause?

Children’s questions force us to scrutinize our own morals and values. If we have biases, they will too. We’d better not blow it, even – and especially – the first time they express curiosity, because there may never be a second chance to undo the damage.

Racial tension

As he grew older, I noticed that he became more aware of racial differences, which was expected. But it made my heart soar that at the same time he seemed astonished at discrimination and intolerance.

His 9-year-old self – and most of his peers – regarded acts of hatred with an innocent wonderment that refreshes the soul.

As he’s aged even more, he has gained a deep realization that the true standard for goodness in people really is, above all else, an examination of the content of their character. And he senses that this is the standard by which he too shall be judged.

It is this sentence, however, that I said to him all those years ago that now gives me pause: “Even though African-Americans still struggle for equal rights, there is more tolerance, understanding, and respect for all people because of Dr. King.”

I wrote that 18 years ago, and now wonder if it’s true. This is not how it was supposed to go.

We’ve seen too many steps in reverse rather than progress moving forward.

Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges should be names familiar to all. Alas, I fear it’s not the case.

Racial tension has increased, along with an increase in discrimination against “the other” of all kinds, based on faith, color, sexual and gender identity, and nationality.

Yet there have been strides made in movements that I believe would make Dr. King, who professed equality for all, proud: LGBT rights, equal pay for equal work, immigrant rights, the outrage over sexual harassment.

Yes, it’s still a long road ahead. But Martin Luther King Day is a way to remind us all that there are brave men and women who can change the course of history.

We can choose to be despondent that it didn’t work out as quickly as we had hoped – or we can choose to face forward and accept that more work needs to be done for the cause of justice and equality.

Let us not despair over setbacks. We as a society have enacted laws that no longer limit where people of all colors, nationalities, genders, and religions can live, work and play. The long view is that we are on the path toward more acceptance and enlightenment.

As I wrote in 2000, “The challenge for us as parents on this Martin Luther King Day is to reinforce Dr. King’s message of tolerance, peace, compassion and understanding. Let everyone see that we honor his legacy and still believe in The Dream.”

For if we are vigilant and demonstrate at every opportunity our belief in equality with words and deeds, so too will the children. And then the future will be secure.

-- Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at: