This January, in celebration of the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I drove with my children to Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. King's hometown.
We spent a day at the King Center, learning about Dr. King and the American Civil Rights Movement. It was an experience I
will not soon forget, nor, I believe, will my children. What we saw, read and experienced at the King Center brought tears to our eyes, made us flinch and turn
away. It laid us low and then raised us up again with the understanding that with love, hard work, sacrifice and faith, all things are possible -- even long-elusive justice.
Before leaving the King Center, I bought the DVD of the HBO production Boycott, a film about the 1955
Montgomery bus boycott, which marked the birth of the American Civil Rights Movement, and the rise of the leader of the movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Like our visit to the King Center, watching Boycott proved to be an emotionally and intellectually powerful experience that I intend to share with my children. As American citizens, as human beings, they need to know this history, not only so that they never fall into the insidious trap of repeating it, but also so that they can understand the scars this country still bears and then build upon the foundations of a better America laid down by the courageous men and women who came before them.
The results of the 13-month-long Montgomery bus boycott -- precipitated by the arrest of Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus
to a white man -- are well known; it was the most successful non-violent protest in American history. One of the many admirable qualities of Boycott
is that the film never allows those results to feel inevitable. Neither does it hold up Dr. King as some kind of pre-ordained, inevitable leader of a great movement that ultimately changed the fabric of the country. Dr. King is masterfully portrayed by Jeffrey Wright, familiar lately as "Felix Leiter" in the new James Bond movies.
King is represented as a leader, certainly, but also as a man -- a highly educated man, a man learning as he goes, a man afraid for the safety of his family and struggling with the burdens of leadership, a man singled out and simultaneously (most importantly) part of a whole. The film introduces names and personalities maybe not so well known, like Ralph David Abernathy (Terrence Howard), Jo Ann Robinson (CCH Pounder), and Bayard Rustin (Erik Todd Dellums), who were also integral to the organization and ultimate success of the boycott and the larger civil rights movement. Boycott makes the issue of segregation and racism real -- even to Americans who may not have been born at the time -- by giving it faces and voices and lives, both black and white.
February is Black History Month, as fitting a time as any, I believe, to sit down with our children and share a film like Boycott. We need -- and our children need -- to understand that Black History Month is American History Month. The two cannot be divided, nor should they be. The history of black people in America is unique, shameful, wrenching, strong and proud. We have come a long way from people being made to give up their seats on the bus. Rosa Parks and Dr. King did not live long enough to see an African-American man ascend to the highest seat in our nation entirely due to the content of his character, but we have. It is well that we should recall how far we have come in the past 50 years, and to consider how much further we have to go.