January 19, 2015

Teachable Moments: Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr's legacy with your children

There are so many days on the calendar that we just let slip by. What did you do to celebrate President's Day last year? What did you do for "Columbus" Day? How did you engage your child or children in the meaning of that day off of school or work or both?

One of those days that I am committed to not letting quietly slide by as I flip the calendar page is Martin Luther King, Jr. Given our current political climate, it's even more important, I think, for us to remember this legacy and how much work is left to be done.

Here's  few concepts to bridge with your children on this MLK day.

1. Every American citizen has the right to peaceably assemble.

Our Constitution doesn't mince its words. The First Amendment is critical to delineating and exploring all of the freedoms that underlie our engagement in this social context. In its full text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

There are, of course, restrictions put on the right to assemble, as the ACLU outlines:

Do I need a permit before I engage in free speech activity? 
Not usually. However, certain types of events require permits. For example: 
A march or parade that does not stay on the sidewalk, and other events that require blocking traffic or street closure;
A large rally requiring the use of sound amplifying devices; or
A rally at certain designated parks or plazas.
Many permit procedures require that the application be filed several weeks in advance of the event. However, the First Amendment prohibits such an advance notice requirement from being used to prevent protests in response to recent news events. Also, many permit ordinances give too much discretion to the police or city officials to impose conditions on the event, such as the route of a march or the sound levels of amplification equipment. Such restrictions may violate the First Amendment if they are unnecessary for traffic control or public safety, or if they interfere significantly with effective communication to the intended audience. A permit cannot be denied because the event is controversial or will express unpopular views.

Why is this so important to MLK Day? Because this was a fundamental right that was denied--over and over again--to American citizens of color during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as before and after the movement. Arguably, it's a right still being impeded today.

This makes it an incredibly important point to drive home to the next generation, and an enduring part of King's legacy.

Activity: Ask your kids what they would want to peaceably assemble for with their friends. Maybe it's ice cream before dinner...maybe it's more movies, less homework. Whatever it is, talk through the scenario. Laugh.

2. Voting is also a fundamental right of our citizens.

The absolute denial of voting rights to so many citizens of color is one of the ugliest periods of our nation's history. After all, this is an unquestionably constitutionally protected right.

In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified. Its full text reads:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. 
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation

This seems pretty clear. And yet, we saw the rise of "voting vouchers" (the requirement that an already registered voter vouch for anyone registering to vote), poll taxes (many requiring individuals to pay for every year that they were eligible to vote and were not registered), and practices of publishing the addresses of people of color that attempted to register to vote, creating a serious risk of retaliation from their communities.

What can you do? Take a look at Bad Kitty for President. This fictional book looks at just how important even one vote can be.

3. Volunteering is an amazing way to pay forward a legacy.

One of the many aspects of King's legacy was his emphasis on pushing back against poverty and celebrating the dignity of all humans. It's an amazing concept, and a beautiful one to pass on to our children.

There are so many ways to get kids involved. Here's a short list:

  • Volunteer at a food pantry. You can box food for seniors, process donations, and do so much more.
  • Help out at a local homeless or domestic violence shelter.
  • See what programs are available in your community. Can you collect books for a library, or children's hospital? Maybe there's a park clean-up? Free newspapers are a great way to find such opportunities, as are local parent inserts, if you're lucky enough to live in an area that has one. You can also check out your community's website (if they have one) as they usually have a community bulletin board for postings.

4. Write letters to your representatives.

One of the most important aspects of voting rights is the ability to elect representatives that are truly representative.

In the South especially, people of color who weren't allowed to vote were subject to all white law enforcement forces, all white politicians, and all white juries (because you had to be registered to vote to sit on a jury). On what level was that representative? (The answer, of course, is that it wasn't, and it wasn't intended to be.)

So help your kids write a letter to a representative. Maybe it's about an issue. Maybe it's a clarification of their stance on something. Maybe it's just a "hey, great job!" note.

Don't know who your representatives are? No problem! Check out Vote Smart.

5. Read a book about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Did you think I was forgetting something?

Reading a book, and really talking about the issues involved with kids, is important. Here's a few popular books for kids on Martin Luther King, Jr.

For Kids:

For Teens:

Of course, teens can also take advantage of any of the amazing biographies that are out there, as well as collections of King's own writings.


One of my commitments as a parent this year is to start bringing these key events alive for my children.

Our history as a nation is checkered. It's imperfect. It's flawed. It's a history written by the actions of imperfect, flawed human beings, people that made mistakes. Sometimes terrible, horrible, awful mistakes.

But it's not over. Those are the building blocks we are given, to make what we can. What we will.

We can build something beautiful. Something amazing. Something that the future will look back on and say, "Ah, this is our legacy, and look what was overcome."

But we can't do that without looking back on the history that has brought us to the point. It's a time to listen, to learn, to support our citizens as they talk.

And it's important to prepare our children to continue to build a new legacy. A more beautiful American patchwork.

It's a dream that has to be nurtured, and cared for, and grown, bit by bit.

It starts with days like today.

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