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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

What Would King Say Today?

Dennis Fox

Januay 17, 2002


"You mean you need my help to write your column!?!" Her eyes widened.

I reminded her about the impending school holiday: "I need your help to tell me what kids in Brookline learn these days about Martin Luther King, Jr."

"Well." She was ready. "Martin Luther King wanted whites to get along with blacks. I'm glad, because I have a friend who's black. I'm happy that Martin Luther King helped make whites and blacks friends, because I think if Martin Luther King hadn't been born we couldn't be friends."

"So you really think if it wasn't for King the two of you wouldn't be friends?"

She pondered. "We could still be friends, but we'd have to do it in secret!"

It turns out my loyal daughter also knows about King's assassination, even that he spent time in jail. Her teachers have her off to a good start.

Of course, third-grade history remains somewhat sanitized. Future teachers will add depth.

She'll learn about slavery and Jim Crow, the legally required racial separation that ended only in 1954. That's the olden days to kids today and even to many parents, but not to all of us. In Fifties Brooklyn I was in overwhelmingly white classes in a school overwhelmingly African American and Puerto Rican. The Supreme Court's firm Southward gaze left Northern segregation untouched.

If my daughter has able teachers with critical minds -- a good bet in Brookline - - she'll study King's transition from reluctant activist to proponent of civil disobedience. King's law-breaking worried other civil rights leaders wary of pushing white society too far, too fast. Yet it was the televised images of protestors resisting authority and breaking the law -- facing arrest, beatings, dogs, and death -- that finally garnered public support for civil rights.

I hope my daughter's teachers bring history up to date, challenging her to grapple with the still-lingering effects of government-enforced oppression. Will she come to realize, as did King in the period before his death, that although equality under law is necessary, it's not nearly sufficient to democratize a society distorted by political and economic inequality? 

Linking issues as his dream expanded beyond liberalism into more encompassing radical terrain, King also condemned as racist the war in Vietnam. In response, the FBI escalated its methodical long-time effort to end his influence, in keeping with one of its core founding missions: preventing African American leaders from galvanizing an oppressed class of people. I wonder if my daughter will learn about this.

I also wonder if she'll be swayed by those who reject calls for meaningful reparations and full equality on the simplistic grounds that racism's legal evils have dissolved into dust, King's mission accomplished.

Or will she be distressed, instead, by the realization that so many of her black classmates must take a bus everyday from Boston to Brookline, simply to get a decent education?

Right now she just thinks her friend is lucky to attend school so far from the neighborhood we drove through last summer on the way to the other girl's birthday party. But someday she may wonder what King would say about disparities in school quality, housing and health care, safety and wealth. Will she understand, as King did, that equality under law -- a concept conservatives now use to defeat the very goals King sought -- is less important than equality in life?

Much has improved since Martin Luther King, Jr. Beyond her friends across the color line, my daughter's had African American teachers and administrators, an experience denied me when I was a child. More than a generation removed from widespread efforts to eradicate not just the racism around us but the stereotypes within, the fact that she has biracial cousins is, to her, unremarkable.

Still, prejudice and institutionalized racism persist, inconsistently challenged by the go-slow, disparity-tolerant liberalism that King railed against. Yet if Brookline's schools do their job, my daughter won't shrug off injustice as beyond her control, a mere artifact of history. Like King, she'll want to persevere until equality is achieved not just in law, but in fact.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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