Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – Lessons from My Mother

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1999, I reflected on this extraordinary man’s courageous life and wrote a letter to the individual who brought his vision to life for me personally—my mother. Here is an excerpt from the letter written 15 years ago.

January 18, 1999

Dear Mom:

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m recalling a Detroit evening in 1968. I was 11 years old. I had been out somewhere and don’t remember much about what I’d been doing. It was what happened when I returned home that is still vivid in my memory.

You were crying, a rare thing for me to see as a child. I was immediately concerned, and you told me Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated. I remember details—you sat in the big brown chair. You wanted me to know what happened. When I asked why he was killed, you told me some people are full of hate.

In those days, I barely noticed we were one of the last white families in our Detroit neighborhood, unlike those who had fled the influx of black families. The skin color of our neighbors and friends was so irrelevant that I was stunned when I became aware of how basic day-to-day living was hard for them in a bigoted world.

This weekend, I honored Martin by attending a speech by Robert Meeropol, a fundraiser for the Rosenberg Fund for Children. This incredible organization provides support for children whose activist parents have been targeted. Of course I have known since I was a kid who Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were, and who their son Robert Meeropol is. You made sure when I was growing up that I knew the truth about this family. You consistently informed me about the real, courageous people populating the political landscape.

Right now I hold a mental photo of you that sad night in 1968, pondering as an 11-year-old that you were moved to tears by the death of a man you’d never met. At age 41, I am now as old as you were then, and I recognize you as the source for my life’s work on behalf of children and the earth.

I could no easier cease working toward a better world than I could stop breathing. I am the daughter of the woman for whom Martin’s death was a personal irreplaceable loss, who boycotted grapes and lettuce on behalf of the union organizing efforts and well-being of distant Latino farmworkers, who always made sure I understood that I’d never be a soloist on this planet.

I appreciate many traits I inherited from you, but value most the intangibles. Compassion. Perseverance in the face of injustice. The ability to still laugh in hard times, to notice when others—human or otherwise—are suffering, to know when I am obligated to act.

Robert Meeropol said in his speech: “Where there is tyranny, there is always resistance.” I am forever committed to the resistance. Unequivocally, I learned this was essential first, and best, from you.

Update: I’m honored that the Rosenberg Fund for Children has shared this post with their community.

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