Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th Anniversary of His Death
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers
Growing up with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
By Christine King Farris
When I read this simple telling of the boyhood experiences of this legend in the long struggle for black equality, one thought struck me. If you would understand the man, take a look at the boy, for that is where the values that define a life begin. Their echo, if the values have taken hold, reverberates throughout that life, and beyond. A recent Broadway play called The Mountaintop by Katori Hall is a view of the other end of the spectrum of Rev. King’s life. The two-character play depicts the night before Dr. King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and it shows a man filled with self-confidence and self-doubt – some pretty common pendulum swings for the human condition.
As we observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and schools attempt to convey the depth of meaning of the contribution of this one life to the lives of generations, somehow lost in all of it may be the realization for youngsters that Martin grew up in a family not unlike their own. He played his share of jokes on others, including loosening the legs on a piano bench to avoid being stuck inside with his piano teacher! He enjoyed the sharing of friendships without regard to race.
His older sister Christine had a first hand view of its early shaping in Atlanta.
In her book, we are the beneficiaries of this rare early view into young Martin’s life, which I think for many children will frame this iconic figure of the civil rights movement in very human terms, allowing his life and contributions to break through the simple compilation of news footage.
This book is written as an accurate reflection of the childhood experiences of my brother; the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although many stories have been told about Martin’s childhood, this one is firsthand. As the sole survivor of the family into which Martin Luther King Jr. was born, I feel it is important to share some true, funny, intriguing elements of Martin’s earlier days. No other document can share this true story.
Many see Martin as a very serious-minded individual, stiff-necked, and always focused. What has not been emphasized enough is that Martin was once a boy. He, like others, developed gradually. He was funny. He was curious. He liked to play. He was a regular “fella”.
Christine King Farris, June 2002
Growing up in a nuclear family in the home of his maternal grandparents, the Reverend and Mrs. A.D. Williams, Martin is grounded from the outset not only with their inclusion in his life, but also with the extended family of Aunt Ida, his grandmother’s sister also present in the family make up.
Auburn Avenue is the gathering spot for youngsters to gather, bike, play ball and enjoy being kids. The Martin children play happily with the children of the white store owner on Sweet Auburn as it is now called, until an event occurs. It is their introduction to the reality of life in Atlanta if you were black at that time. There is a color line. It is an all but invisible, ugly and painful truth to be explained to a child. But sometimes it is not what we say that matters as much as what we model to our children. Martin’s father, who was minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, spoke out against hatred and bigotry, refusing to be cowed or defined by the culture of the times. Lessons were learned at a very young age of the right to dignity.
But Mother Dear as Martin’s mother is called, does her best to answer his straightforward question surrounding “White Only” signs that effect Martin’s use of certain streetcars, elevators at City Hall, restaurants, hotels, parks and museums and balcony only seats in picture shows.
The journey has begun for this young boy whose hope is not daunted by the reality he hears. The artistry enhancing this picture book is realistic, light filled with paintings portraying a Norman Rockwell like style by Chris Soentpiet. The emotions felt by each of the characters are fully etched with amazing nuance and honesty. These are real people with real lives lived under difficult circumstances deemed by society to be “normal”. Before I read the words of the book, I was so taken with the faces of the people and their common humanity seen on any street in America.
King’s quote to his mother on hearing the realities of life for blacks in Atlanta is simple and powerful; “Mother Dear, one day I’m going to turn this world upside down.”
It may seem like a long journey from a daring statement from a young child to the “the Mountaintop” he spoke of on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Maybe not.
I believe children deserve, and will benefit from a peek into the past of such a person via this wonderful book. If children are the future of our country, let them see the positive possibilities in the eyes of a child named Martin Luther King Jr.
Example, as I said, may always be the strongest teacher. And if that is so, as Martin learned from his father, and his children from him, so too our children learn that a life well lived has a ripple effect on many others….even 50 years beyond when it is cut short by an assassin’s bullet.
Ideas and the people that espouse ideals to reach towards, despite opposition,continue to live through those ideals, far beyond that person’s passing from this life.
And that is a noble lesson to be learned by young readers of today from this picture book written by the sister of someone that lived and died in helping to make those ideals of dignity and equality a reality in people’s lives in a non violent way.
It’s a great picture book about a great man.