Martin Luther King Day is coming up, and I want to teach my children about him, especially since the civil rights movement is such a huge part of our local history here in Alabama. My dilemma is that my children (ages 4, 6, and 9) are currently completely oblivious to racism. They treat everyone the same and it doesn't even occur to them that anyone would do otherwise. Is there a way to teach them about the positive things that came out of the civil rights movement, while still maintaining their innocence about racism? Or is this a subject best left until they're more mature?
Okay (takes a deep breath), I'll share...
I have no data for when kids are old enough to talk to them about racism, slavery, and the Jim Crow laws that were in effect for so many decades afterwards. I can tell you what I wanted for my child, which was that she be old enough not only to understand why these things were wrong, but also to understand the particular stupidity that allowed them to come about in the first place. I would think your three year old is too young, but your six your old might be close. Either way, however, you can start by preparing the ground.
Re: your dilemma: I am white. I also was oblivious to skin color as a child; I expect that that's more common than not. I definitely remember how uncomfortable it made me to learn about slavery; it made my reactions to people of color feel very unnatural. For a long time I wished I had been left in a state of innocence. It took me until adulthood to understand that "innocence" (in this case) was ignorance. People of color were still experiencing blatant racism at the time. My ability to grow up oblivious of skin color was due to white privilege; the majority of colored children growing up in the United States at that time had no such luxury.
One wants one's child to grow up free from prejudice, and it's easy to think that the best way is to let their natural tendency to take people at face value lead the way... i.e., if you don't teach them about prejudice they won't learn to be prejudiced. Unfortunately, that also means they won't learn how to combat prejudice; and in their ignorance they might easily be led to perpetuate the problem. In order to help stamp out racism, or at the very least not to make it worse, children have to learn about it; learn how to recognize it in its myriad forms; and learn how to deal with it.
What I decided to do was to leave my child to enjoy her "innocence" for as long as possible (which was until they covered civil rights in first grade), but to give her a framework in which the concepts of slavery and prejudice -- when she encountered them -- would have their shameful place, and not cause her whole understanding of the world to crash. The way I did this was to talk about how people tend to be afraid of things that are different just because they are different, and how that is silly. Being different is okay, was my message, and sometimes it is very interesting.
The first time she complained about someone who did something different than we do ("Ben doesn't have a sippy cup of milk before he goes to bed!" or whatever it was) I said, "Yes, people are different! I bet he has his milk right after supper!" in a "they do it that way, we do it our way, and that's okay!" tone of voice. And so on for most differences she pointed out, including those we discovered between her and me (e.g., I love marinara sauce and spicy food, she hates them). "Isn't that interesting!" I would say. "People are different!" (And sometimes go on about it.)
As she got older, I would point out that sometimes some people are uneasy when something is different than what they have known, and that it is natural to prefer what you are familiar with; but you never know if you might like something until you try it. I said that sometimes people who do not like things that are different also don't like people who are different, which is silly, but not everyone has been taught to how to think smart.
When she first experienced someone making fun of someone else, I would say, "Yes, so-and-so is upset and being mean because he is uncomfortable because that person is different." I told her being different is okay (as long as the different person is not mean), but being mean is never okay. When she was older (five or six) I told her that she should tell the person, "That's not nice! How would you like it if..." I told her that she didn't have to physically stop the meanness, but she had to speak up about it.
Somewhere around age five or six I started to give the important examples: "Do you know there are even people who think our friends Frank and Joe should not be married because they are both men! Some people think that just because they want to be married to a person of the opposite sex, and because they can see that most people are like them, that being different must be bad. But just because most people like chocolate ice cream, does that mean strawberry ice cream is bad?" Although I'm sure I did an example for skin color, I decided to leave slavery, etc. for the school. But with this framework in place, I found it easy to deal with her (few) questions when she came home talking about it.
I'm suggesting this approach because I think that with it, you can bring up slavery and racism without causing your children to start looking at certain of their friends differently. They can maintain their innocence and yet lose their ignorance. Because in this framework, it is possible for some silly people to be prejudiced against people with long hair, or people who don't play sports, or people with darker skin; and it's all the same type of silliness. The difference is one particular silliness got embedded in American culture and law for historical reasons, with very horrible results, and we have to work to get it out.
...I will let someone else make recommendations for how you go forward from here -- what materials you can use, etc. As I said, I let her school do this part.
First, I think kids knowing that life isn't always fair and hasn't always been fair for all is actually a good thing (in my experience, it helps keep us reminded of why we should be grateful - so I would introduce this as a concept even to the littlest one. However, young kids need to be left with a sense of hope in order for these kinds of lessons to build understanding and gratitude rather than create fear. I think that is pretty easy to do when Martin Luther King Jr. is at the core of the story - build hope - since the impact he made goes far beyond just the US south.
You are already showing that you are considering how to be considerate of what each child's developmental stage is - You know what each of your kids can handle in terms of "details." You don't have to go into the really horrible stuff to make the point. Explaining that "colored" bathrooms and water fountains were dirtier, often didn't work and that there were fewer of them than those for "whites" shows how one group was treated unfairly without getting into a lot of detail about violence. Be vague with the youngest and increase specificty with age and maturity level. If they ask for more specifics and you carefully offer it in increments - they are leading the way and showing you what they are ready for and what you should probably hold off on for now.
The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss can be a non-reality way of introducing the concept of discrimination and opening up discussion about the topic in general. Before the star-on machine, questions like: "Are the sneetches with stars treating the other sneetches fairly? Does having a star reflect the type of friend you might be or how much fun you can actually have? What might the sneetches with stars learn from the sneetches without? What could the sneetches without stars do about how they are treated?" are great discussion starters - I'm sure you'll have plenty of further ideas as you read on.
Then, move them into the real world. My Favorite book discussing the general idea- in particular to Civil Rights of Persons with African Descent, at the moment is actually a fairly new one and is called, We Shall Overcome the Story of a Song. Written by Debbie Levy, it is really the describes the history of the song, "we Shall Overcome" and discusses why the song was important to slave communities, groups of people fighting during the Civil Rights Movement in the US, and even how it was picked up by people in South Africa and other locales as an anthem for freedom. The book's tone is hopeful and uplifting. The illustrations are also not racist in nature because they include other races also helping in the fight for freedom and don't treat the issue as divided solely by color like some books do (Many whites also fought in the abolitionist movement, for civil rights and so on). It may be quite long (as there is a lot of text for a picutre book) so you might read it in chunks, but otherwise, I highly suggest checking it out.
There are some other books - including a couple of Caldecott winners (an honor given for amazing and vivid work in children's texts (mostly focuses on illustrations). One of my favorite Caldecott Winners on the subject is Henry's Freedom Box because it is straight forward and clear and based on a true story from the Underground Railroad. I also love Patricia and Frederick McKissack for the African American Story in US History (and just good - old- fashioned clever story telling (Have you ever read, Flossie and the Fox?). In particular, by the McKissacks, for teaching a glimpse of what slavery life was sometimes like, I like Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters.
Specifically regarding Martin Luther King Jr. there are a ton of sensitively created books out there that tell his story for a variety of ages. There is The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. by Johnny Ray Moore that is a board book, Happy Birthday Martin Luther King Jr. that is a picture book, and even "Who Was Martin Luther King Jr." by Penguin that is an early chapter book (Penguin also has "Who was Rosa Parks" and "Who was Harriet Tubman " btw), just to name a few. Right now is a great time to drop by your bookstore and find a display with all the newest books or Classic MLK books out there so you can go through the choices, and many public libraries have a children's librarian that can help you find some of the quality older ones too. If a librarian is unable to help, find a reference book like A to Zoo which is a subject Access Guide and can help you find more books on almost any subject and will include a short synopsis of many of the books listed within it.
I am not personally familiar with "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," not having read the book cover to cover, but it is written with 12-14 year olds in mind and may be a good compliment to Let the Circle Be Unbroken, and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry both by Mildred Taylor, which might work well for your nine year old depending on Reading Ability (Roll of Thunder is intended for Grades 4-6 and Let the Circle is its sequel both take place during the depression and elucidate how Jim Crow Laws and the Depression affected families of color).
Having said all of that. I hope you won't end their civil rights education with an annual quick study of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.
Civil rights really address a much broader spectrum of people and issues than just black/white relations. Why not introduce the fight for civil rights through your history lessons by addressing a variety of people that have fought for freedoms across the spectrum of genders, colors, cultures, religions etc as they arise in your history study? I think by introducing civil rights over and over again throughout history, rather than just making a special day/month for the fight for civil rights for African Americans in the US will make the fight that much more profound to your kids over time as well as more relatable to your kids. Using Martin Luther King and Martin Luther King Day is a great jumping off point but definitely not an ending to the possible lessons.
For example, Helen Keller is known for being deaf and blind, but did you know she worked hard to fight for the rights of persons with a handicap as well as women's rights? Or what about the multitude of Native Americans that have fought for their rights? Or Caesar Chavez and his fight for the rights of Migrant Workers? Poncho Barnes was an aviator and contemporary of Amelia Earhart that fought for women's rights and started a Union for stunt pilots to fight for workers rights against Howard Hughes. While on the subject of Rights for Workers, what about the Newsies? They impacted rights of children in the workplace tremendously and their work was a watershed in favor of rights for children in textiles and other industries as well. The Women's Suffrage movements as well as anti-slavery often went hand in hand with each other and some of the earliest leaders in each movement were active in both movements (Including Susan B. Anthony).
Frankly, even the same issue can be interesting presented at a time in history when it is not usually focused on. Laurie Halse-Anderson's Chains (written for kids about ten or older) was a very interesting read and is set in Revolutionary New York, but told from the perspective of a slave girl. Slave Dancer, takes place on a slaving ship after importation of slaves was no longer legal but before the civil war and is told from the perspective of a kidnapped boy pressed into service to play music for the slaves to exercise them on the ship. It is written with with Middleschool students in mind and shows how slavery even made slaves of others that were neither officially slaves, nor free.
Then, there are moments in world history as well. I don't need to remind anybody (I hope) about all the people that fought with and for Jewish people, handicapped people, and homosexuals during the second world war - In order to escape persecution or at least help others escape it (Number the Stars by Louis Lowrey). What about Nelson Mandela (Power of One is wonderful for Highschool - RL sixth grade, but considering challenge reading) or Ghandi and their causes? Remember Yugoslavia? but I'll let you take it from there :-)
In whatever case and whatever lesson you do regarding Civil Rights, leave them seeing the power people have when they join together for the common good (rather than death or defeat). This empowering lesson of overcoming helps them to create resilience in themselves, a sense of empowerment, and to see how people of any ethnicity, race or credo can come together to do what is right.
If I were you, I'd hold off on the younger two, but you can read The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by by Christopher Paul Curtis with the oldest. (Kids like being read to, even older kids.) Reading it with your child will allow you to discuss the difficult topics with him or her as they are introduced.
Are they aware of other kinds of discrimination? If so, you can tell them that there was a time when just about everyone treated people badly because of their skin colour, the way today some people treat [whatever group they're aware of] badly because of [difference.] Even today, you could go on, there are still some people who are racist, but things have changed a lot in the last 50 or 60 years, and this day is to honour one of the people who worked to create that change in the country. You can then either focus on how to be a person who stands up for change, or teaching them more about what things were like in MLK's time, or go further back in your history should you need to. I don't think I would teach a small child about the specifics of the civil rights movement beyond "treated badly." The details are likely to upset them and they're pretty young for that.
If they are utterly unaware of any kind of institutionalized and widely accepted or supported discrimination, perhaps you could start to point some out to them. Like a doctor assuming someone in a wheelchair can't speak for themselves, or a deaf person being treated as though they're unintelligent, or a same sex couple you know who aren't married or don't have children because they're not allowed to, or a teacher who makes a comment about how strange it is to have a lot of children. Prejudice and discrimination is all around all of us even if we don't practice it ourselves. Then next year when MLK Day comes around, you'll have lots of examples to relate it to.