What Observing Dr. King’s Birthday Taught My Son

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, 1964. Library of Congress

When I told my son that he would not have to attend school on January 21st he responded like any normal 12-year-old would—he shouted in excitement. To him, it was just like any normal day except he didn’t have to go to school. However, I, someone who understands the battles Dr. King and other like him endured was disturbed. Is that all this holiday had become to our children? Do they have  no idea of the struggle of people during the Civil Rights Movement just to have the right to sit at the front of the bus and vote?  Angry, I decided to give my son a lesson in the Civil Rights Movement. We went to my old hometown, Memphis, Tennessee and went to place where Dr. King was murdered. Yes, things just got real for my son.

As we drove home, my son was full of questions. Why were we suddenly dropping everything and flying to Tennessee? Had someone died? Why weren’t his little brother and sister coming? What was going on? I was vague at first  but then as I continued to think about his pointless excitement to be excited about not having to go to school, I got angry. As the flight ended, I looked at him and told him, I’m going to make you understand why Dr. King’s birthday is so important.

Knowing we’d only be in town only for a day, I decided to forego seeing family and opted to check into a hotel near the Civil Rights Museum. As a child, my son went there often but there’s a difference in going when you’re five and when you’re twelve. As we entered the museum, the mood quickly changed from my son acting like he was being punished, to a mood of how important this “field trip” was going to be. As we walked the museum, I made it a point to stop at every exhibit and read and meditate on those moments in history.

As I was walking I noticed that my son was suddenly quiet and reserved. He also was reading the exhibits and he kept shaking his head and saying, “Mom, is this true? Why were people so mean?”

For the next five hours we talked about the exhibits and what they meant not only to  my son but to all brown boys everywhere. I made my son sit on the bus that Rosa Parks sat on and listen to the white men ordering her to the back. He sat on the counter where many freedom riders sat demanding to be served. He saw the sanitation truck and read about their strike and the reason why Dr. King had been in Memphis. Then, we visited the hotel room where Dr. King stayed the night before he was murdered. As my son read the exhibit and listened to the audio I could see something in his demeanor change. The final part of the exhibit was across the street where the killer, James Earl Ray, shot Dr. King and looked at his getaway car.

At the end of the day I noticed my son’s demeanor had changed. He suddenly was full of questions about the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King, racism and about himself. We decided to go out to eat and discuss the day. We discussed why Dr. King’s birthday may get him a day off from school and the decades of history behind his birthday. My son even suggested that instead of us sleeping in on that cold, Monday morning in January that we get up early and go and do some community service since that’s what Dr. King was all about: service to people.

On the plane ride home later that night, I looked at my son and I was proud. I was proud that he was starting to understand the seriousness of what it meant to be a black man in America. When we got home that night my son was bursting with joy telling his dad about the trip and even trying to convince his 4- and 2-year-old sister why they needed to visit the museum. He finally got it: the observance of Dr. King’s birthday is a holiday that should make us reflect on the struggle of not only his life but what his death has taught us.

Words by Franchesca Lane-Warren

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