Saving the World One Old-School Lesson at a Time
On the Monday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, in the year commemorating 50 years since his assassination, my twenty-somethings wanted to go shopping. My heart ached. I wanted to save the world. Besides, I didn’t want to disappoint Barack Obama.
We struck a bargain. We’d visit the Museum of the City of New York, which was hosting an exhibit titled “King in New York,” first. In this way, we would be honoring Dr. King’s memory by learning and reflecting on Dr. King's time here and the role that New York played in the Civil Rights movement. It wasn’t exactly the day of service Barack was asking for, but as a lifelong educator, I could make a case for some continuous learning.
Then perhaps we’d shop.
Walking across Central Park from our apartment to the museum felt something like those days in my childhood in Queens walking to temple on the high holy days. There was purpose to this walk.
The exhibit hall was small but crowded with children and their assorted adults, an array of younger couples, and a mix of thirty to sixty-year-olds either on their own or in the company of friends.
The importance of context
If I was initially disappointed at the smaller volume of photographs, it soon became clear that there was a great depth to each one. Most people spent a lot of time examining each one, seemingly steeped in memory of that time, place, or event.
I found one daughter in front of a photo of Dr. King at Riverside Church, where he spoke out against the Vietnam war, and where she, as a high school student, had performed several times with her school’s chorus. She was making a connection.
All around us, younger children were scurrying to complete worksheets in some sort of treasure hunt activity intended to help them focus, perhaps, on specifics of the exhibit, of each photograph. Some took their time, interacting and receiving coaching from an accompanying adult, while others seemed to challenge each other to complete the exercise as quickly as possible. This is the nature of most kids when presented with such a task.
For adults old enough to remember those times, the photos are a touchstone; but for younger children, it’s all new information, and I wonder how much context there is in the city streets and building as they were 50 years ago. It was good to see conversations taking place to help provide some context. These conversations may not have been too dissimilar from spending an afternoon looking through old family photos.
Passing down our own history
I stopped for a long while in front of a enlarged series of negatives of Mayor John Lindsay marching in honor of Dr. King, bringing back memories of that long, hot summer, and Lindsay’s “walking the streets,” promoting calm in times of great tension. I wasn't much older than many of these school children.
While I was silently recalling those days, a young woman with two toddlers stood near me, her eyes intent on the image and then on me. “It’s really emotional,” we said nearly simultaneously. Then she shared her concerns for her children. “How can I make my two bi-racial children understand that there were places their mother couldn't go? How can I make them understand?"
Was it her history she needed to share, or was she preparing to teach them to protect themselves moving forward?
I wondered about the discrimination she had suffered in this city growing up 20 years after Dr. King’s death. We started to talk about it, but she got pulled away by her kids. Later I saw her at that same spot talking with a docent. Was she getting any help with her challenge in gently passing along the lessons of her history to her young children?
As a white mother of bi-racial children, I have heard my kids talk about not being white enough, or not being Chinese enough, and facing challenges of identity. Raised in New York City, where my family lives, and summering in San Francisco with their dad’s family, they’ve experienced a range of cultures throughout their lives that have contributed toward a sense of identity that seems to be increasingly unique. Still, they are acutely aware of their past, of past discrimination, and social media or even academic research has kept issues such as yellow face and other ongoing slights front of mind.
Is the Medium the Message?
As many of us walked around the exhibit popping pictures here and there with our phones, one particular photo struck me as relevant to how we learn the lessons of the history of and engage in the ongoing fight for racial equality. The LP “Dr. King Jr. Speaks to District 65 DWA” was released in 1968 and contains four speeches Dr. King delivered between 1962 and 1967, including the one at Madison Square Garden in 1963.
With information being spread so quickly, the idea of an LP of speeches gives you reason to pause. I mean, really pause, and think about the true power of one man’s words as they were captured, distributed, and savored in his time. It’s something that can be lost amidst the cacophony of all that is available to us today.
So, the true lesson is that once in a while we need to give pause and remind ourselves of what has come before us in order to move forward.
That’s at least one thing I learned in a deceptively quaint exhibit of 20 or so photographs of a time 50 years ago when one man harnessed the hopes and dreams of so many people fighting for something as simple as the truth. It’s all there in (mostly) black and white. #MLK #CivilRights #education #HumanRights #equality
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