— January 19, 2020 —
auryn Hill famously rapped, “it’s funny how money change a situation.” But as I think about Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been his 91st
birthday (Jan. 15, 2020), it’s funny how fatherhood changes perception.
That because for all the things that Martin Luther King Jr. was—minister, activist, humanitarian, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, civil rights icon—I rarely thought of him as something I am now: a father.
When King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he was the father of four children—Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine—all under the age of eight. Yolanda and Martin Luther III were just shy of their 8th and 6th birthdays, respectively, Dexter was five months from his 3rd birthday and his youngest daughter, Bernice, was just five months old.
King himself was 34 years old that day when he spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, urging America “to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” King said, his powerful preaching punctuated by rousing applause.
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This perspective on King as not just a radical leader and mighty spokesperson in the Civil Rights Movement but also a father gives me a newfound appreciation for what he and his wife, Coretta, endured and sacrificed in the ongoing struggle to compel America to “make real the promises of democracy.”
We often think of change-makers as young people driven by a combination of fire, intellect, and vision, but many of our most revered leaders are not only warriors in the struggle, but parents raising children.
King was aware of the sacrifices he was making and the effects of The Struggle on his family. In “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” edited by Stanford University professor Clayborne Carson, who was selected by Coretta to edit and publish the papers of her late husband, King writes:
“Coretta was never satisfied in being away from me, but she could not always be with me because she had to stay home with our four rather young children. She did join me on some occasions, and she was always a deep consolation to me, supporting my every move. I didn’t have the problem of having a wife who was afraid and trying to run from the situation. And that was a great help in all of the difficulties that I confronted.
“When I thought of my future, I also thought of my family. I had to think of what’s best for them also. One of the frustrating aspects of my life has been the great demands that come as a result of my involvement in the civil rights movement and the struggle for justice and peace. I have to be away from home a great deal and that takes me away from the family so much. It’s just impossible to carry out the responsibilities of a father and husband when you have these kinds of demands. But fortunately, I have a most understanding wife who has tried to explain to the children why I have to be absent so much. I think in some way they understand, even though it’s pretty hard on them.”
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee while campaigning for the rights of striking sanitation workers. He was 39 years old.
ive years into my own journey as a dad, I can imagine how being a father fighting for a better world not just for the downtrodden, but for his own children, must have fueled King’s tireless advocacy. We often think of change-makers as young people driven by a combination of fire, intellect, and vision, but many of our most revered leaders are not only warriors in the struggle, but parents raising children. That means when they’re on the frontlines, their family is on the frontlines with them.
But even warriors need rest. There’s a song on Solange’s breakout album, “A Seat at the Table” titled “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care),” in which she stresses the need to find a balance between engaging the world’s problems and making time for self-preservation:
Let’s take it off tonight
Break it off tonight
Baby, it’s war outside these walls
Baby, it’s war outside these doors, yeah
A safe place tonight
Let’s play it safe tonight
Baby, you know what you’re fighting for
Baby, you know what I’m fighting for
“My husband and I share a lot in common in our yearning to see equality in this country. Sometimes throughout that, [self-care] becomes a mission within itself,” Solange said in a 2016 interview with W magazine. “That song was an ode to how our home becomes a safe space, where we can just love and not deal with some of the intensities…”
I listen to Solange’s song now and think how Martin and Coretta didn’t often have the luxury of a safe space in the midst of the movement to get a seat at the table for Black Americans.
During the 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the Kings received persistent, threatening phone calls. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized black neighborhoods. Their family home was bombed—while Coretta was at home with her then-infant daughter, Yolanda.
“The night of the bombing, I began to understand how much it meant to Martin to have a wife who was strong. And that’s really when I made my commitment to go all the way,” Coretta recalled in her memoir, “My Life, My Love, My Legacy.”
She once said this to journalist and author Rev. Barbara Ann Reynolds: “What most did not understand then was that I was not only married to the man I loved, but I was also married to the movement that I loved.”
It’s through the lens of parenthood, of being a married father with a young daughter, that I reflect on the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day of this decade (Jan. 20, 2020).
The national holiday was first observed on January 20, 1986, when I was 11 years old. I have fond memories of gathering with my family in Los Angeles to watch parades march down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in his honor and, when I was in college, coordinating MLK community service events with my brothers in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the nation’s first Black Greek-letter fraternity of which King became a member of in 1952.
As parents of a kindergartner with special needs, my wife and I often feel like there’s never enough time to do all we must do, let alone all that we want to do. But we give what we can, when we can, where we can—our time, talents, resources— inspired by a question King posed to an audience in 1957: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
It’s a question we should ask ourselves on MLK Day—and every day we’re alive.
Featured photo from The U.S. National Archives
Banner photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash
Poor People’s Campaign photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash