My older daughter has learned about Dr Martin Luther King Jr (she’s always insistent that when I say his name I say the whole thing – according to her great men and women deserve that). There are holes in what she’s being taught. Based on what she’s brought home from school, he was a peaceful, kind, loving, and brave leader who just asked enough times for rights and someone finally said yes. I’m filling in what she’s learning with some information on his resistance efforts and what he both faced and advocated. I’m also letting her know that there were other people involved in the Civil Rights movement who weren’t as peaceful. I don’t want her to grow up thinking if you just ask nicely enough times you won’t ever have to fight for what’s right. It can be difficult, but it’s worth it.
Filling in the struggle of Dr. King has lead to me reflecting on the history that I was taught as a kid. I went to a private, white (not officially segregated but it was almost completely white), rich, Southern, all-girls school that was across from a White’s Only Country Club. My mom taught there allowing my sister and me to go tuition-free, meaning the other kids didn’t let me forget that I was the poor kid (in that world, meaning middle class). I was given an incredibly white-washed history. In 3rd grade, we put on a play about Rosa Parks in which she was played by a white girl because there wasn’t anyone of color in my class. In the play, Rosa Parks was an old woman who was very tired after a day of cleaning houses. The girl playing her was to sit and just say, “My feet are tired. Please let me sit” over and over. She was nicely removed from the bus and taken to jail; there was no fight, she just complied. Then, as I was taught, the bus boycott was mainly led by the white women who were generous enough to drive the African-American women and men around for a year. There was no discussion of how much walking was done and there was no talk of riots and fights and black leadership. The white women were generous and the buses decided to desegregate to relieve the burden on them.
Yes, that’s a massive white-washing of what happened, and is disturbingly inaccurate. As I thought of it, though, I don’t think it’s just that history is too often white-washed, but more that it’s resistance-washed. My education on the women’s rights movement was that Susan B Anthony was part of the Seneca Falls Convention, that basically women just asked for the right to vote over and over and finally the men said ok. I wasn’t taught about Elizabeth Cady Stanton except as a friend of Anthony’s and it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I even heard the name Carrie Chapman Catt. There was no mention of beatings or hunger strikes or forced feedings. There was no discussion of it being a hard-fought victory. There wasn’t a fight, there was only polite.
When we teach people that all the rights won were just nicely granted, it makes people less likely to be willing to fight now. When they aren’t just given over no matter how many times people ask, the question comes into people’s mind of why is this so much harder than the Civil Rights Movement was? Why are we not getting districts that aren’t gerrymandered or polling places restored to places that they’ve been removed from? We asked nicely, that’s all it’s supposed to take. I wasn’t taught about the difficult part of activism, it’s supposed to be one big march and done. It was taught as “please sir, may I have my Constitutional rights” and there’s no talk of those who lost their freedom or their life, just those who were ‘respectable.’
I’m trying to change this with my daughters. I’m filling in the gaps in the resistance struggles and making sure they don’t think that all they must do is ask, they must be willing to fight for what they believe in. When my daughter starts talking about how nice and kind and peaceful Dr. King was, I talk to her about his time in jail and about his speeches on resistance. I talk to both my girls about the physical attacks that people endured. We talk about John Lewis getting beaten up. I tell them that African American kids were yelled at for trying to go to school with whites. When we talk about women’s rights, I include women being arrested and being hurt. I let them know that until the Civil Rights Act women of color didn’t fully have the right to vote. I don’t just talk to her about the result, I talk about the struggle it took to get there. No one is going to freely give anyone their rights, they’ve always been obtained after a revolution. Those don’t come easy and I don’t want my girls to think that a struggle means they’re doing something wrong in life. The struggle is a sign of doing something right. I’m not going to white-wash history, and I’m not going to resistance-wash it either. I hope they never need to fight for their rights, or anyone else’s for that matter, but they’re going to be prepared if it comes to that.