It was the mid-eighties. I went to an urban elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. My best friend Sunny had apple round cheeks and wooly pigtails tied off with bright double-ball elastics. I, with butt-length hair and bell-bottoms, was the unwitting victim of parent fashion crimes, but she loved me anyway. And I loved her. It didn’t matter to either of us that she was black and I was white.
Like most children, I saw skin color as incidental. I thought no more of it than I did of hair color, or height, or the car someone’s parents drove. I didn’t even have the acumen to notice that bell-bottoms had gone out of style half a decade before, or that I looked exactly like Laura Ingalls in my first grade picture–prairie dress, pigtail braids and all (why did no one lock my parents up, I ask you?). Our next-door neighbors were African-American and so was at least half of my school. Oprah Winfrey’s niece was in the 6th grade with my brother. It was the age of Cosby and those oddly comforting geometric dad sweaters.
But there was a day when I became aware of racial difference, and I will never forget it. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and we assembled on the cafeteria stage. We filed in behind the heavy curtains, and sat on the polished wood floor. They turned the lights off, making a small dark theater of the closed-curtained stage, and started a video of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, I knew the value of a good call and response performance. But this was something more. The way King projected his voice was like music, or magic. It tugged at the soul and echoed with prophetic authority. I imagined those “red hills of Georgia” and freedom ringing like a giant bell from “Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.” I thought of Sunny and I holding hands on the playground, just as he imagined his own kids holding the hands of little white children in brother and sisterhood.
I remember sitting on that hard floor in the dark with chills down my arms and tears welling. His words rang inside me like a tuning fork, like a summons. I loved him, and his message, and the God he served who birthed this vision for the reconciliation of all people.
As an adult, I cannot hear Dr. King speak without responding the same way. I teach tenth grade English. A few weeks ago at a Martin Luther King, Jr. assembly, as clips of his speeches played on big screens, I sat on the gym bleachers wiping tears from my eyes and didn’t try to hide it from my students sitting next to me. King’s summons calls to me as strongly as ever now, when I understand far better the ugly reality of evil and its hovering presence.
This November I spent three weeks teaching Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” At this suburban private school with a majority of white wealthy, I wanted them to know this amazing man, both his message and his rhetorical genius. We studied it also for its timeliness; the darkness in America seems to be growing.
The day after the election, the word “Trump” defaced the door to the Muslim prayer room at Columbia University, hate crimes doubled across the country, and at my daughter’s elementary school here in the hippy dippy Pacific Northwest, racist slurs were graffitied in the bathrooms the week after the election.
Whatever one might think about Donald Trump himself, it’s hard to deny that his rise to power was helped by an undercurrent of our society that is bigoted and violent and interprets his election as permission to go public. There are uncomfortable parallels between the racist sentiments of King’s time and the emerging voices of hatred today.
Not all of my students fit the private school stereotype. A surprising number are international. They came to the U.S. to study from Thailand, China, Taiwan, and Korea. Others are the children of African and Eastern European immigrants. A few have physical disabilities. After the election, one of my international students said, “I feel afraid. What will happen to me?” He is here legally on a student visa, yet still he worries. I think he’s expressing his fear that his very presence in our country is a target of hostility.
King speaks to this, saying, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” The international students are as integral to my classroom as the jocks and robotics kids. They bring laughter, cultural context, and new perspectives. My heart breaks for them that they feel singled out and unwelcome.
Studying the letter, my American students processed their shock that the white Southern church did little to help King’s cause. (King called the white church the “archdefender of the status quo.”) This side of history, it’s hard to understand others’ silence in the face of something clearly wrong. It reminds us that it takes clear eyes and bravery to stand up against normalized injustice.
I’m not in first grade anymore. I know that race relationships in this country aren’t as simple as sitting next to each other at circle time. King grieved that the white church didn’t support the civil rights movement. Similarly, we can’t just say, good though our intentions might be, that “all lives matter.” Of course they do, but think how dismissive that sounds to people of color who are constantly treated as though they matter far less than whites. King said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and we who witness racial injustice from a safe distance must learn to regard it as a threat to our own lives, safety, and prosperity. Because it is. The diminishing of any human life is the diminishing of all human life. To say that black lives matter is to say that all lives matter by elevating those who have been put down, and humbling ourselves to identify with them in their suffering.
At the end of our unit, my students wrote letters of their own, petitioning on behalf of those whose human rights are being violated. Some found issues that affected them, like digital privacy. But most cast their gaze to the injustice happening all over the globe against minorities, refugees, children, political prisoners, women, and people whose voices aren’t heard. They argued for change and they called for compassion for people who are unlike them in many ways. Not all could bring themselves to truly see others’ suffering, but I was so deeply proud of those who did.
Each of us can only do so much, but there is something for each person to do. Sharing King’s words with my students is my something. My investment in an America that feels like it has long odds on a good outcome. As Malala Yousafzei said, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” I hope that my students will become arrows of light shot into that dark future. They just might set the world on fire.
J.M. Roddy is a freelance and fiction writer, a high school teacher, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.