Martin Luther King Day – Not on the List

MLK quote

Robynn wrote this piece three years ago. Today I am re-posting in honor of Martin Luther King Day. This day is critically important – to remember, to honor, and to think about what needs to change in our world.

Robynn’s post is an insightful look at prejudice and exclusion. Read on and join in the conversation in the comment section.

Two weeks ago our middle school daughter, Adelaide, came home from school troubled.  The first week of every quarter they are allowed to sit where they like at lunch time. However, after that,  on a specific day of Principal Hoyt’s choosing, they are forced to lock into one seat where they’ll sit at lunch for the rest of that quarter. This is a painful process. And it’s especially painful for our quiet child Adelaide. Adelaide takes her lunch from home and so while her best friend goes through the lunch line Adelaide must bear the weight of the responsibility of deciding where they should sit. It usually works out just fine and if Jessica doesn’t agree with the spot Adelaide has chosen, they move. On this particular day two weeks ago, Adelaide approached a half empty table. She was told there was no room there. She asked if she could sit at the end of the table. The girls smiled, shook their heads, apologized and said there was no room. She then went and sat with Lindsey and Emily.

               “Oh you weren’t on the list either,” Lindsey said.

Adelaide was puzzled, “What list?”

“We asked if we could sit there too but they said we weren’t on the list,” Lindsey explained.

“There’s a list?” Adelaide was slightly shocked, “Was I on it?”

“I guess not,” Lindsey said, “Since they didn’t let you sit there!”

Martin Luther King Day has just passed and Lowell and I just finished watching the PBS Eyes on the Prize six part documentary outlining as the subtitle indicates, America’s Civil Rights Years.  The back jacket describes the series:  “Rare reflections open the door to understanding America’s struggle for equality…key witnesses describe the extraordinary role ordinary people played in shaping the civil rights movement….”

Just down the road from where we live is Topeka, Kansas. Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education as a Supreme Court ruling set the final scene in the Civil Rights drama in motion. The NAACP chose Topeka because Topeka was already on the road to full integration. They were ready. The NAACP was certain of a victory. The Topeka high schools were already integrated. At the elementary school level they had taken the “Separate but Equal” motto to heart. Their segregated elementary schools were all designed by the same architect and were exact replications of one another. Black children and white children had access to the same buildings and the same text books. Topeka was ready. In fact they went ahead and integrated the schools before the case was even closed.

It continues to astound me, a guest in this country– a guest who has lived most of her life in foreign countries surrounded by people marvelously different from me– it continues to astound me how long racial segregation and prejudice had its grip on this nation. The United States of America is known for scientific discovery, technological advancement, religious and personal freedoms and her broad- sweeping noble constitution which declares unashamedly the equality of all. How is it possible that early constitution writers didn’t see the natural outworking of their words into everyday life? How is it possible that this document which in its introduction declares, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”  could be written in 1787 and yet slaves not be emancipated until 1863? How is it further possible that here, in the US, whites were kept separate from blacks long after the federal government had mandated the application of that same constitution? It mystifies me.

And yet it probably shouldn’t. As Adelaide’s experience in the lunch room shows, we all carry the seeds of prejudice, judgement, unkindness, discrimination inside our souls. We make lists. We divide people. We show disdain. We label. We say, “you’re not sitting at my table”. We even say it with an apology and a smile,
“Sorry, there’s no room …for you …here… at our table”. And so it begins.

When Adelaide was in fifth grade we had her tested, at the strong encouragement from her teachers, for the “gifted” program. She missed it by 2 points. When Adelaide was in sixth grade she was participating in the gifted program even though, technically, she didn’t qualify. There was only one other boy in the program and they needed a second child for Cooper to compete against, play games with, do research together etc. We understood. That was fine. Besides Adelaide benefitted from it and enjoyed it.

However, it came time for the gifted participants to go on a field trip. Adelaide could go but she wouldn’t be able to ride on the bus. Policy was policy. She hadn’t technically qualified so she wasn’t technically gifted and wouldn’t technically be allowed to ride the bus. (I suspect it was insurance coverage that kept her off the bus!)

Irony of ironies, the field trip was to Topeka to visit the Brown vs Topeka Board of Education National Historical Site. And Adelaide couldn’t ride the bus.  Lowell and Adelaide talked on the drive down about labels and false divisions we place on people. He told her about the other groups of students who weren’t allowed to ride the buses either, but for other reasons. It was a profound lesson for our whole family.

As long as we continue to label people, as long as we continue to identify people by anything other than their character or their spirits, as long as we qualify our stories with colour, as long as we keep people off our bus and away from our tables, as long as all that continues to happen, we will continue to see the seeds of prejudice and discrimination grow up into weeds of division.