Why It Still Matters


So I’ve been discussing the Civil Rights Movement–in particular the life (and death) of Martin Luther King, Jr.–with my son increasingly over the last month. For him it’s all just ancient history, abstract, like our discussions regarding various wars, but with less for him to seize on without Hollywood-style armies.

So we talk about how my father was born in the early 1930s, and how he couldn’t be in the same public places as other people. Or how people like him could be robbed or killed or wronged in all sorts of ways back then without being guaranteed justice. My father was already in his 30s when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

We also covered how it was difficult for my father and mother because back when I was born people like them weren’t supposed to marry each other, whereas now it’s not a big deal. My son was shocked by the notion that there could have ever been laws against people of different skin color marrying at some point in the past. I told him I would not have been born if many people had their way, which he didn’t like one bit.

Another thing we touched on was George Washington owning people in one branch of my father’s family, and how if we visit Washington’s plantation in Virginia we can stand on a mass grave of slaves who might be related to my father’s people. That also helped to make things more real for my son.

Lastly, we discussed my father’s drive to stay employed during the 1970s in a job that provided full health and retirement benefits with the government despite the fact the head of his department made it very well known they would never permit a person of color to be promoted. My father endured this because he had a family to think about, and his father had been a dock worker. My father was the first in his family to go to college, but even so he had experienced how difficult employment could be for person of color in the 1950s and 60s. One job he had ended up being to meet a quota; a local university was required to have one person of African origin employed, so he sat at a desk with nothing to do because they refused to assign him tasks. As you can imagine being at the Smithsonian and actually working for his paychecks was a relief in comparison. Of course, my father’s career was hobbled by his lack of upward mobility early on, and he never achieved the same level as his peers–even those a couple decades younger.

There are numerous contemporary discrimination examples of all kinds we could point to, not just those pertaining ethnicity. I’ll be covering that in another blog post. For the time being, though, the discussion between my son and I regarding his grandfather (pictured above) and how institutional racism harmed him, and by extension me, is ongoing. For him it brings history to life in a raw and emotional way, and for me the alien nature of these concepts for my son gives me hope. If things really seem so different for his generation then perhaps the situation really is moving in the right direction.

Afterthought: yes, to those who have seen my son on social media, he is very light skinned and is generally received as being descended from the westernmost reaches of Eurasia. And yes, he has plenty of exposure to people with dark skin…in fact, he’s been in classes where he was one of the only light-skinned people around, instructors included. But we live in Maryland and things are skewed here because of the massive amounts of “ethnic others” from around the world, including 30% of the population being of African descent (yes, one third!). Traveling around the country is often an eye-opener for us because we’re unaccustomed to homogeneous populations. That, though, makes it all the harder for my son and his friends to grasp the significance of the human rights sea change we’ve experienced over the last two generations. I’m glad he seems to “get it,” though, that for those who came before we didn’t fare so well–and that there are still plenty of problems to overcome.


  1. davidprosser says:

    Like you I hope that your son finding discrimination an alien concept means that finally things are starting to change for the better. I have to hope it’s not just a phenonomen of the ethnicity where you live. I hope that discrimination for any reason has had it’s day and people are starting to understand the concept of brotherhood at last.
    Though I can’t say there hasn’t been discrimination on a large scale here in the UK, I think I can say we moved in the right direction quicker and that as one born in the early 50’s I’ve not seen or practiced discrimination as I’ve grown.
    Here’s to a better future for your son.


    1. I’m glad to hear that about the UK! I’ve only visited once, for a couple weeks in 1990, but found England to be…well, it felt a bit more relaxed. Thanks for taking the time to read, and the kind thoughts for my son and the future!


  2. Riveting piece. It shows just how important history is for our future and, not least, that enthusiasm for the subject can be engendered by parents if they just spend some time with their children on family history. I hope beyond hope that discrimination is on the way out but I doubt it very much. As your visitor above says, there has been progress here in the UK but a lot of of discriminatory behaviour still exists and a lot of racism is hidden. In the late ’80s, I worked for the BBC World Service as an actress and happened to meet, outside work, a Nigerian journalist with whom I stepped out for a while. Bearing in mind that Bush House, where we worked, was full of every skin colour under the sun, I was profoundly shocked when one of the female producers I worked with questioned the advisability of my going out with a Nigerian, even if he was born in the UK. Never forgotten the exchange.


    1. Yes! Very good observations. And what an interesting story, one which cuts straight to the heart of casual discrimination that is not in place systematically. Good for you, though! Also, encouraging an understanding of history is vital, to my mind, particularly since emphasis on the subject has been reduced in the USA school system. We’ll see how it all shapes up eventually, though, won’t we? Thanks for taking a moment to read and comment!


      1. Not sure I’m going to live long enough to see real change and improvement!


  3. Wow, brings the whole thing home. Its easy to think of it as just a grotesque part of ancient history (which it is) until you think about it from personal points of view. I’m quite horrified that it was only the sixties in which things began changing, I was thinking about that the other day. The sixties! That’s not that long ago!


    1. Too true Madeleine, it really is not so long ago, especially considering it takes at least a couple decades for changes that large to fully come into effect. I’m gad the blog did something for you 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and commenting, as always.


      1. That’s ok, very interesting!


  4. Reblogged this on Greatpoetrymhf's Weblog and commented:
    John Edward Lawson….this hour’s inspiration


  5. thank you for sharing I have scooped this and reblog with notes that you are this hour’s inspiration


  6. Very kind of you, thanks so much!


  7. AlainBKK says:

    Reblogged this on AlainBKK.


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