I find the coincidence of MLK Day and the celebration of the second inauguration of Barack Obama falling on the same date to be greatly moving. I'm impressed by how much change can happen during one's lifetime. It's one of those moments where I wish we had a way to tell important figures of the past what happens after they're gone. Did Dr King envision a first family like the one we have living in the White House by now, or not for another century? It's sooner than I expected it to happen and it makes me very proud as an American.
When I was in high school there was no official recognition yet of MLK Day. We went to school as usual and there was nothing to mark the day as different from any other. One year I remember our vice principal, who was African-American, standing at the entrance of the school telling just the African-American students they could go home. This caused a bit of a stir, and even at the time it seemed like an ill-considered tribute that did a disservice to the black students by having them miss school while others went, but looking back I understand a little better the vice principal's frustration.
Now, of course, things are different. My children have the day off (as do the students at my old high school) and they are taught the significance of Dr King to our history as part of a generally accepted curriculum. He is rightly recognized as a hero, and as such his image and name are held up by people on both sides of issues to bolster their points, even when it has little connection. (I'm flabbergasted that gun enthusiasts would say our nation's most famous promoter of non-violence and a victim of assassination by gun that Dr King would have championed their causes as well, but I'll take it as a positive sign of progress that they even want to make such an attempt at an association.)
Whenever I think of Dr King, though, I think of a conversation I had with Aden when she was five. (Mona was three, Quinn was two months, and Ian was in Iraq on his first deployment.) I didn't have a blog back then, but I wrote mass emails frequently to be more connected to the world outside my house where I felt somewhat trapped. This was the message I wrote half a dozen years ago:
Jan 14, 2007
Aden asked me this morning why she doesn't have to go to school tomorrow if it isn't Saturday. I told her it was a holiday. "Which one?" Martin Luther King Jr. Day. "Who was Martin Luther King Jr?" I told her he was a hero who helped Americans see that people shouldn't be treated differently just because of how they look. She thought about that for a minute and then asked, "Did he walk or fly?" I said he walked. I tried to tell her a bit about that it used to be considered okay for people with skin like ours to treat people like her teacher Ms Audrey or her friend Truman badly, just because their skin is darker. I told her there were things people in this country used to think women couldn't do either, like vote or have certain jobs. She didn't have much to say about that, but a few hours later when I was online she wanted to know if we could call up "the hero who walked." I told her he was dead and she was very surprised. We checked out some photos of Martin Luther King Jr. on Wikipedia, and she seemed satisfied.
Now we have a rocket ship to paint in the living room.
And years later that's how I still think of Dr King: The hero who walked. So how fitting that our re-elected president will participate in a parade today, where he will walk in our nation's capital in celebration of so much that is right with our country.
Happy MLK and inauguration day, everyone! It's a good day to be an American.