As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.
Life Lesson #46- The Significance of the Civil Rights Movement
On August 12th, 2017, a white supremacist barreled his car into a crowd of people who were protesting against the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists who had descended upon Charlottesville, VA. Heather Heyer was killed and many others injured in that attack which was rooted in boiling racial tension. Heyer had a history of speaking out against injustice and had urged others to be active in their communities. She was a progressive activist who, like all the other counter-protesters that summer day, bravely put herself in harm’s way, face-to-face with the ugly and violent contingent espousing regressive values in our country.
For quite some time I’ve known that my sons need to understand the Civil Rights Movement- its roots in slavery, the cataclysm of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the Emancipation Proclamation, the tumult of Reconstruction, the emergence of Jim Crow and the KKK, segregation, Brown v. Board of Education, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. Critical in this lesson is the word movement. It never stopped- the advance of justice and equality continues forward, albeit in fits and starts. After the progress of the 1960s came Rodney King, the Los Angeles riots, O.J. Simpson.
Our family cheered the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. Presidency. My oldest son, Josh, was 5 years old in 2008- old enough for us to talk with him about the significance of Obama’s candidacy and victory. One fall afternoon my wife and I took our sons to a local Obama campaign office. That evening and in the ensuing weeks Gabe, 2 years old and precocious with his language development, repeatedly mentioned being at “Barack Obama headquarters.” With Obama in the White House, we felt America had taken a huge stride forward.
But then . . . the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in his shooting. Michael Brown’s death and subsequent Ferguson riots of 2014. Eric Garner dying in a police officer’s chokehold in 2014. Freddie Gray’s 2015 arrest, spinal cord injuries sustained while in a police van, death a week later, and violent protests in Baltimore. White supremacist Dylann Roof gunning down nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, 2015. Walter Scott, unarmed, fatally shot by a white police officer following a daytime traffic stop for a busted brake light, also in Charleston, 2015. Sandra Bland found hanged in a Texas jail cell in 2015, three days after being arrested during a traffic stop.
July 2016: Alton Sterling shot multiple times while being held to the ground by two Baton Rouge police officers, then days later another black man, Philando Castile, shot and killed by a police officer in Minnesota as his girlfriend live streams the incident with her four-year-old daughter in the car. Later that year the shooting death by police officers of Keith Lamont Scott, followed by outrage and protests in Charlotte about racism and policing. And, of course, Charlottesville. These are just some of the more publicized victims, injustices, and tragedies from the last few years. Evidence of continuing racism in our country is too vast to tally, especially when considering the pervasiveness of implicit bias, or the unconscious stereotypes we all have and that influence our thinking and actions.
Though recent history is dispiriting, it has provided ample fodder for important discussions with our sons, now including Luke (who is 7 years old). We need them to understand, at least at some level, how their life experiences as white middle-class boys differ from kids of other races who may even reside in the same zip code. We tell them that parents of African-American boys coach them on how to conduct themselves when interacting with police (so that they are not shot, for example, reaching into a glove box for license and registration). The calamity of Charlottesville prompted us to tell them the depraved story of the KKK and neo-Nazis and to describe what it means to be a white nationalist.
Our sons attend excellent public schools (an acknowledged perk of white privilege). So I can trust that in social studies and history classes they will learn about the Civil Rights Movement, both pre- and post-1960’s. They already have a good store of facts, but facts aren’t enough. My wife and I want them to have formative experiences, such as volunteering in underprivileged communities and schools; working in homeless shelters; having friends, teammates, and classmates of different races; visiting and absorbing places like the Gettysburg battlefield; and attending places of worship, like a mosque, that are different than ours. Experiences can make deeper impressions (this is an episodic memory) than learning facts (or semantic memory).
What will really lock in lessons about civil rights is emotion. Science has established that the human brain is wired to better remember emotionally-charged events. I know this firsthand. I grew up in Montana, where few people of color live (even fewer back in the 1970’s and 80’s). The first African-American person I recall meeting was Ruth, the housekeeper for my grandmother, who lived in the Chicago area. I was very young and have only fragmented memories of the encounter. What has stuck with me was my fascination with how the skin on the back of her hands was so much darker than her palms. As we held hands I asked her if it was paint that could be washed off. She kindly explained that, no, that was the unchangeable color of her skin. I’m certain that the reason I have that fond memory is that it is attached to warm emotion.
I had a drastically different visceral reaction not long after when I was 7 years old (same as Luke now). My only experience to that point with African-American people had been with Ruth. I had yet to learn about racism and segregation and the KKK. I happened upon a television movie called Attack on Terror: The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan, which depicted the investigation into the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi (these same events later were portrayed in Mississippi Burning). I remember Attack on Terror very well because of two emotions it evoked in me: shock and anger. It had never crossed my mind until then that anyone would treat another person, much less assault them, because of their race. I was dismayed that people like the KKK existed. I was so angry about what they had done to those young men and that, some civil rights violations and one much-delayed manslaughter conviction notwithstanding, they got away with it. I remain angry about it to this day.
As a parent, I can’t force emotional reactions on my sons. All I can do is create opportunities and take advantage of circumstances. Not long ago Josh and my wife watched The Help (set, incidentally, in Mississippi in the 1960’s). I asked him how that movie made him felt. Being a 13-year-old, his emotions didn’t exactly come pouring forth. But I nudged him along and he was able to relate that he was angered by several scenes in the movie, none more than the final showdown between Hilly and Aibeleen, her African-American housekeeper and driving force behind the tell-all book that had exposed Hilly’s racism. Acting vengefully, Hilly conjured grounds for firing Aibeleen based on a false crime. Aibeleen got the last word, though, finally opening up to her spiteful boss about what an appalling person she is. Aibeleen’s triumph and liberation from Hilly’s bigotry left Josh with more hopeful, positive emotions. My hope is that anger about the racism of Hilly and others in that movie will stick with Josh and help him to put real-life events into context. Civil rights is about the treatment of people. Having an emotional reaction helps him to empathize with the plight of other people. Share the emotion and you start to share the vantage point.
Which brings me back to Charlottesville. I want my sons to develop into the kind of brave activist that Heather Heyer was, willing to confront bigotry and injustice. That goal will be more attainable the more outraged they are by what took place this August- the contemptible slurs about people of color and immigrants, the rampant anti-Semitism, the physical intimidation and violence, and the plowing of a car into defenseless people. Edmund Burke stated, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Emotion will amplify lessons about civil rights, which will form my sons’ value systems. Values, ultimately, will inspire and guide their actions.
Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!