I had The Girl read these words aloud, and I asked her what they meant.
TG: It means everybody is equal.
Me: You’re right; it does. But that’s not what Thomas Jefferson meant.
TG: It’s not?
Me: No. He meant all white men were equal.
TG: But by “men” he meant everybody.
Me: Nope. He meant men, white ones. He didn’t mean women and he didn’t mean people who weren’t white.
The Boy: Really?
Me: Really, but Martin Luther King, Jr. fought so that those words, which are true, would actually be true for everybody.
To commemorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I took the kids to St. Louis’ Gateway Arch today. For the past few years we have gone to Christ Church Cathedral to participate in an annual day-long reading of King’s words, accompanied by video clips and stills. We even waited in line last year to read, but we needed to leave before our turn. The kids have generally hated it, however, so we did something different this year.
Why the Arch? Because it’s hilarious to me that the US erected a 630′ monument to celebrate manifest destiny. Because the structure is an architectural wonder. Because the Museum of Westward Expansion at the base of the Arch is very interesting. Because we could.
Our visit to the Arch today included us walking into the building through the main entrance; using public restrooms; drinking out of every water fountain in the place; sharing our tram car to the top with a white couple from Ohio; and holding a working flintlock rifle, while two little white girls and their white mom stood only a foot away. We could do all of these things because of the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others. Not only could we do these things, we could take them for granted.
The Old Courthouse is very near the Arch, and I asked my hungry children if they wanted to go. They didn’t; they wanted to go to Wendy’s. The Girl, however, said, “I don’t want to go to court and get judged.”
TB: You won’t get judged. You didn’t do anything wrong.
Me: Sometimes people who don’t do anything wrong have trials and go to jail.
TG: That’s not right. Not if they didn’t do anything wrong.
Me: It’s not right, but it happens.
Me: Yes, but not as much as it used to. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail.
TB: Wait! What? What did he do wrong?
Me: Nothing. He stood up for what was right.
TG: But you’re not supposed to go to jail for doing what’s right.
Me: You’re right; you’re not. But it happens.
On the way to Wendy’s, The Girl picked up the conversation again.
TG: I don’t get it.
TG: The big deal. Why did people care so much about black and white?
Me: I don’t have a good answer, but they did.
TG: But we’re not different.
Me: I know.
TB: Plus it was a long time ago. Like the 17 or 1800s.
TG: No. No. It wasn’t that long ago. It was the 1960s. But that was still a long time ago.
Me: That wasn’t that long ago. Only 50 years.
TB: I’m only 7. That’s a long time to me.
Me: Well, I’m 40, and 50 years ago doesn’t seem that long to me.
TB: Were you alive?
Me: No. It was 50 years ago; I’m only 40.
TB: Was Dad alive?
Me: No, but all of your grandparents were.
TB: Is he still alive?
TB: I meant how old would he be today?
Me: 85. About the same age as my grandparents. A little younger.
TB: If he hadn’t been assassinated would he still be alive?
Me: It’s hard to say. Three of my four grandparents are dead. The one who is still alive is 90. It’s hard to know when people will die, but it’s possible he would have been alive. His wife died a few years ago.
TB: But my grandparents were alive when he was?
Me: Yep. All four of them.
TG: Did they know him?
Me: I don’t think so. My parents didn’t, but they’re from Chicago, not the South. Dad’s parents are from the South, so they probably had more opportunity to meet him. You should ask Grandma next time you see her. You should talk to all of your grandparents, because they know a lot about that time.
TB: How old were they?
Me: Your grandparents were in their 20s during the Civil Rights Movement.
TG: Their 20s?
Me: Yep. They were just the age of a lot of the people we learn about. They know all about the Civil Rights Movement.
TG: They do?
Me: Yeah. They lived it. They had to go to schools for only black kids. They had to drink out of separate water fountains. They had to go through certain entrances. They had to sit at the back of the bus.
TB: Wait! Wow! What? They had to do all that?
Me: Like I said, 50 years really isn’t that long ago. If you ask them about it, I’m sure they’ll tell you.
TG: But how could they stand it?
Me: Well, Martin Luther King, Jr. helped people not to have to stand it. He helped people not be afraid.
TG: Afraid of what?
Me: Of getting beat up or even killed for doing all of things we did today.
TB: But we didn’t do anything, really. We just went to the Arch.
Me: That’s the point. We went to the Arch, and it wasn’t a big deal, but 50 years ago, it would have been.
TG: You mean we would have gotten beat up for going to the wrong bathroom or something?
Me: That is what I mean. And Dr. King helped people not to be afraid to go and do everything they deserved to be doing anyway.
Thank you, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for imbuing us with courage and fortitude.
Help us, Lord, to remain strong.