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.