This is in the history books: In 1983, Congress passed and President Ronald Regan signed the law making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.
This is history, but it’s not in many books: My Utah state legislature made us the last state to recognize the holiday. In 2000 our legislators finally renamed our generic “Human Rights Day” Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The argument for preferring the broader “human rights” name went something like, “Civil and human rights is bigger than just one person. Many people struggled for human rights, not just Martin Luther King, Jr.”
And so we kept the faceless “human rights” day for many years. That I recall, our school district did nothing particularly special to celebrate the day over the years. But I love a party, and I wanted a celebration. This I could do, because when you teach elementary grades, you are La Reina, The Queen of your domain. I was going to celebrate.
In 1986 I was teaching 6th grade. There was not a brown or black face in my class. Because of that, I thought it was even more important that we honor this American hero. I thought it would be appropriate to read something special from a speech by Dr. King and learn a movement song like We Shall Overcome. I remembered that the speech was somewhere in our textbook, so I fast-forwarded to the page, and there it was.
But that’s all there was. There was no context for why he had to give that speech. And so I decided that our celebration would mean a little homework. I constructed a two-week curriculum using a video from Eyes on the Prize. I began, as Queens are wont to do, with my birth.
I told my class that I was born the year a little boy named Emmet Till died. Emmet Till was from Chicago and was visiting his uncle in Mississippi for the summer. He was only fourteen years old when he was lynched for being sassy to a white woman in a store. As he left the store, he said, “Bye, baby” on a dare from his cousins.
That night he was kidnapped from his uncle’s home. When they found him weeks later, he was unrecognizable. Not as Emmet. He was not recognizable as a human being. He had been beaten to death and drowned. The men who did it – relatives of the woman – bragged to others and against overwhelming evidence at their trial, they were acquitted because, after all, they were white, and Emmet Till was a black child.
My students listened to this story. They were shocked.
But the story of Emmet is important to tell, because a generation of black boys and black girls and their mothers and fathers and ministers and neighbors understood as clearly as it is possible to understand an incomprehensible thing like hate, that simply opening your mouth and saying two wrong words could condemn you to torture and death and the murders could smile and walk away free men. Being a child would not save you from this hate. Emmet’s death was a warning to stay in your place or die.
But instead, it inspired those boys and girls and their mothers and fathers and ministers and neighbors to fight injustice with the power of pure moral integrity. It inspired Dr. King and a host of heroes to use their elegant voices to speak and shout and pound the pavement that they would fight for the children they loved, the future those children deserved, and that love would give them a power beyond all the cowardice of hate.
For two weeks, my boys and girls hung on every speech, every newsreel, every song. They raised their hands with amazing questions and amazing insights. They cheered for their new heroes who marched on Washington and were dragged from lunch counters.
They were indignant at the villains who sought to keep black citizens from voting or living in certain neighborhoods or having their children attend a school that their tax dollars paid for. I could see it in their eyes. They had learned. Something in them had changed. They understood the price that was paid for an American idea: Justice for all.
One little girl said, “Emmet got killed for just being rude. Martin Luther King knew that someone wanted to kill him every time he gave a speech. And he gave it anyway.”
On Sunday, October 16th. I sat as close as I could get to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and heard President Barack Obama dedicate our nation’s newest tribute to courage. Yes, it is a monument to untold millions who struggled and continue to struggle for equality and respect. But it is fitting that the monument have a face and tell a person’s story. It is in the stories of our heroes that we recognize courage and dedication and kindness and abiding love that cannot be killed.
Human rights; civil rights have a million names. Now they have a monument and with the monument, the story will be told and, whether or not the generic facts make a history book, the human story will be honored and it will be remembered.