Celebrating Dr. King’s Legacy

Here at Kuk Sool Won™ of St. Paul, we take our celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day pretty seriously. We’ll usually suspend whatever else we’re talking about in a particular month to reflect on Dr. King’s words and work, celebrate his legacy, and challenge our students to continue to work for justice for all people in every way possible.

I’ve spent some time thinking about how to approach our talks about Dr. King this year, how to make concepts like race felt and better understood by young children, most of whom are white, most of whom live in homes, neighborhoods, and communities that rarely feel the challenges of racism. How do I impress upon adults (young and not-so-young) that when they start a sentence with the words, “Is it really racist when…” that 99% of the time, you should assume the answer is “Yes”? How do I continue to work on myself, finding my own blindnesses, strengthening my own understanding, and always working towards the highest standards of just behavior, even in the midst of my own blindnesses and poor understanding?

Today, I’ll focus on the kids. 70% of our students are under 12, so I need to be able to give them something they can hear. What can I say to them about Dr. King’s legacy that is developmentally appropriate, that has a good chance of sticking with them, that feels applicable to their lives? As I lay awake in the wee hours of the morning, struggling with this, here’s what I came up with:

Whatever you’re using to justify your mean/vengeful/cruel/thoughtless behavior cuts no ice with Dr. King.

I hear justifications and rationalizations all the time. I am many parents’ favorite boogeyman — if their child has messed up, telling them that they need to talk to Shil Jahng Nim about it can be a pretty powerful way of getting that child’s attention. Have you ever had to confess your bad behavior face to face with someone? It’s a powerful experience, and one I know is extremely valuable for the children who go through it (so powerful that I wish more adults would create opportunities for themselves to go through it). Here are some recent examples:

“He pushed me, so I hit him.”

“He was saying (fill in the blank) about me, so I said (again) about him.”

“She is always teasing me, and I just got so angry.”

So, here’s what I mean about cutting no ice with Dr. King. Try replacing that justification with words like, “He is a human being,” or “She is a person, just like me.”

“He is a human being, and I hit him.”

“He is a human being, and I said (whatever negative thing I said) about him.”

“She is a person, just like me, and I just got so angry.”

One legacy of non-violent protest is that I cannot accept my own rationalizations for my bad behavior. He pushed me, and that seems like justification for hitting him? Sorry. The men and women fighting for civil rights had dogs set on them, and they didn’t hit back. She teased me, so I lashed out in anger? Children desegregating schools had the most vile, hurtful things you can imagine yelled at them, and they had to contain their anger and maintain self-control.

People will treat you badly. Children especially will tease, bully, emotionally blackmail, casually exclude, act out in anger and frustration — it’s where they are in their process of development toward adulthood. But we can teach them, each time, and every time, that reacting to someone else’s bad behavior with bad behavior is unacceptable. True justice, the kind of justice Dr. King exhorted us to, worked towards, and ultimately gave his life for, says that we don’t mistreat human beings, even human beings who are mistreating us. We do not accept the mistreatment of human beings, either at the hands of other people, or at our own hands.


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