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Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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Sunday, January 20, 2013

By HOLLY KOZELSKY - Bulletin Accent Editor

Is the concept of Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the understanding of his message — changing over time?

On a major level, his message is to end segregation. Most of segregation he fought is over (except, of course, for that in churches and beauty parlors).

Without having the banner of integration to fly (unless it comes to our Bibles or our hair, of course), what’s the point?

Of course, that’s an extremely simplistic question. We know of bad situations in our society and certainly in the world at large which need to be corrected.

The difference in King’s time from ours is that for many in society now, injustices are not the baseline. Even when individual situations exist, society as a whole takes a stance against most forms of discrimination.

Let’s look at another role of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy: To remind us of how bad things used to be, perhaps so we don’t repeat them. Know the past in order to appreciate the present and continue to work toward improvement to the future.

As an educated adult, I don’t have to work hard to define King’s message and legacy nor to find a reason to celebrate his holiday. They are obvious.

As a mother of a 3-year-old, though, I have to back up from its context to be able to write on the empty slate that is my daughter.

My aunts and uncles have one level of understanding of segregation. They were in high school the first year public schools were integrated. They remember with pain some of the difficulties.

People of my generation are at another level. We only attended integrated schools. We didn’t know about segregation until we were taught about it.

Racial tension still was high, however. We were children when five people were killed in nearby Greensboro, N.C., when the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis showed up at an anti-Klan rally. Every couple of months when we went out to wait for the school bus, the Klan’s (unwelcome) newspaper would be at every doorstep on our street. The Klan even had a phone line you could call to hear a viciously hateful message. It was scary to listen to, but all the kids called it — even the black kids — to hear the cussing in it.

On my best friend’s first day of kindergarten, she recalls, her father’s words of advice to her were “Don’t ever call a nigger a nigger, ‘cause they’ll beat you up.” He also took her to Klan rallies every now and then so she’d “get some learning.”

She didn’t take him seriously on those points, because she considered the source. He also got really drunk on paydays and would beat the children.

Thirty years and another generation later, my best friend’s children never heard what is now called “The N Word” until they came home from school one day asking about it.

Now I have a 3-year-old. How do she and I celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day together? Do I have to take her backwards in time with explanations of the cruelties of the past in order for her to make sense of his message?

No. I take the easy approach — and a valid one.

She was let down after Christmas. “What’s next?” she asked.

“Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” I said. “Dr. King is a man who tried to help everyone be nice and be fair, and not be mean.”

She said that was the perfect reason to have a holiday.

So for the past three weeks we’ve been talking about Dr. King’s message about being nice (and “not being mean like that mean King Herod,” she says. She’s still ticked off at him for the trouble he caused Baby Jesus and his family).

“That Dr. King is a nice man,” she says now and then. “Like Santa Claus.”

When she’s older, she’ll learn about atrocities and injustices, and then understand why Dr. King had to work so hard to get people not to be so mean.

For now, though, we appreciate the very basic level of his message, which underscores everything else he and others like him put forward. King’s convictions apply to all aspects of our lives.

Be nice and be fair, and don’t be mean.


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