I would have preferred my beautiful boy ask me a different question. Something like, "How did I get inside mommy's stomach when I was a baby?" As parent-child discussions go, Reproductive Biology is easier than race relations and the Civil Rights Movement. But it's January, Dr. King's actual birthday just passed, his holiday is upon us, and my son's second grade class learned two really big words, segregation and integration. It's difficult explaining to a kid, who happens to think the family business is serving as an Army soldier, that his grandfather had to ride in the back of the bus before, during and after serving in the segregated Army of WWII. He actually asked if the segregated Army "put the black soldiers on one part of the battlefield, and the white soldiers on another part of the field?" It gets even more complicated when you add-in the institutional messages from his Cub Scout activities, weekly Catholic mass, and the focused religious studies twice a month to prepare him for his First Communion. There is no pleasant way to explain why grandpa, grandma, uncle, auntie, me and mommy were not allowed to use the rest-room, eat, sleep, or even walk down the street in certain places. Or maybe there is.
I felt heat as the light bulb that's slowly burning a bald-spot on my head flashed, and it dawned on me -- American military service and patriotism, Martin Luther King, Jr., school, and communion. This cloud of inquiry may have a silver lining after all. I am the son, the grandson, the nephew, the younger brother, and the son-in-law of combat veterans. That family position is not unique, but the perspective of duty associated with military service is, at best, uncommon. Duty is selfless service to a higher cause.
"Years ago when I was asked "why, as a black man, would you serve in this country's Armed Forces?" my answer came faster than I expected. I said whether they wanted to or not, white soldiers escorted and protected the Little Rock Nine. One group followed orders, the other group followed the dream and both succeeded in making our nation a better place. Family business? Hell yes! This is what Dr. King meant when he said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." He wrote those words in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. The letter was Reverend King sounding the alarm to his fellow clergymen, especially southern religious leaders who turned a blind eye to segregation because it was legal. He reminded them "that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was illegal." He called on them to be strong in their faith and courageous in their actions, to give selfless service to a higher cause -- like Ruby Bridges.
She inspired a generation and now, she's captured the attention and admiration of my son. Norman Rockwell's oil painting The Problem We All Live With shows a six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges, and four U.S. Marshalls escorting her to an all-white elementary school. At six, she was the first to cross the line of school. Though racial hatred lingered, segregation in the schools was over. Its demise, through the fearless forward movement of some, and the performance of duty by others has created a pleasant way to discuss with my son, his second grade introduction to segregation and integration. The most important thing his young mind needs to know is that it's over. And that our duty now is to make sure it remains a thing of the past. Led by Dr. King, protected by soldiers, and educated in American schools, good people recognized a bad thing and they did something about it. That is a theme as old as America itself. It goes back to the story of 91 Native Americans who helped 102 Pilgrims survive a harsh winter. After the following spring, summer, and fall the Native Americans and the 54 surviving Pilgrims sat together at an integrated feast, broke bread and gave thanks for life in this country.
Having defeated segregation in his country and influencing Dr. King in the use of non-violent protest, Mahatma Gandhi said "I have also seen children successfully surmounting the effects of an evil inheritance. That is due to purity being an inherent attribute of the soul." Americans, black and white, overcame and discarded our inherited segregation because discarding it was not only the right thing to do; it was the American thing to do. Thank you Dr. King. Thank you, Little Rock Nine and thank you Ruby Bridges.