A few weeks ago, our country observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day to honor the legacy and celebrate the birthday of the iconic civil rights leader.
I was watching the news with my young kids as they showed clips of King, including some footage of protesting and fighting. It caught the attention of my 7-year-old daughter, Amaya, and she asked what was going on.
I explained that on this day we remember a very kind and courageous man who fought for the rights of all people. She asked what I meant.
I explained that years ago, people of color didn’t have the same rights as people with white skin. They had to use separate bathrooms and drinking fountains, sit in the back of buses and go to separate schools.
My 5-year-old son, Max, chimed in with Amaya at this point as they both looked at me puzzled and asked why. I told them some people with white skin thought we needed to be separated and they thought people with dark skin weren’t the same as people with white skin.
Again, they looked at me like I was from outer space and said, “But … why?!”
I said, “I know … exactly! It doesn’t make any sense, does it? No matter what we look like on the outside, we are all the same inside, aren’t we?”
They looked at me as if it was the most obvious observation in the world and said, “Yes!” So I told them that’s why we remember Martin Luther King Jr. today.
My family and I live in a small town with very little diversity. One day my daughter was talking to her grandma about her classmates and her grandma asked if the child she was referring to had black skin. She asked this just as a frame of reference to know who Amaya was speaking of as she knows the faces of most of her classmates but not the names.
Amaya looked at her grandma funny and said she didn’t have any classmates with black skin. I was blown away. My daughter didn’t see color, she only saw another child.
We can learn a lot from kids.
In preparation for this column I turned to Google to refresh my knowledge of Iowa’s history in civil rights and segregation. I’m sure I learned it in school, but that’s been a few decades ago!
I was pleasantly surprised to learn Iowa has always been a progressive state in regards to civil rights.
In 1868, Iowa became the second state to outlaw segregated schools, 90 years before the rest of America. That’s not to say other forms of segregation in our state didn’t exist after this point but it was still a bold move.
Also in 1868, Iowa made it legal for black men to vote. This was two years before the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which granted all men the right to vote regardless of race.
In 1851, Iowa became the second state to legalize interracial marriage, a century before the rest of America. And in 2007, jumping to modern day civil rights, Iowa was the second state to allow full marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
I’m not naïve, I know race and civil rights inequalities still exist today. But hearing my kids’ reaction to the absurdity of its existence proves we are born with open hearts and minds. It’s up to us as their parents, grandparents, teachers and community members to make sure they don’t lose that perspective.