We all know this passage by heart from Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." All these years, I thought that line was about equality for all children. But that's not what he said. He said he dreamed of a day that his four children would be judged by who they were, not how they looked. In that moment in 1963, he wasn't speaking as a reverend or philosopher or a civil rights leader. He was speaking as a parent.
Becoming a parent can be the most humanizing of all of life's experiences. As parents, we begin to think beyond our own needs – even beyond our own lifetimes. There are things I want for myself, but as a mother, I want greater things for my children. I work hard to achieve my goals, but will sacrifice nearly everything to make sure my children have the opportunity to achieve theirs. I will summon all of my power to keep my children safe. There comes the inevitable moment as a parent, however, when we realize that life will happen to our children, no matter how much we shield, love and protect them. For parents of color, that heartbreaking lesson can come early and hard when racism tries to rob them of hope. Even though the injustice is society's failure, you still wonder what more you could have done to guarantee that your child would not be judged solely by the color of her skin.
For me, that moment came in the late 1980s when our first child was only 3 months old. One night after hosting a dinner party, we all decided to go to a downtown nightclub. The other couples went ahead while we got a babysitter. When we finally arrived at the club, the bouncer took one look at us and said, "Sorry, there's a private party here tonight." We protested that there couldn't be a private party because our friends were inside saving us a seat. He didn't budge, and we went home, deflated. What the bouncer didn't know was that some of the people in our group were black and some were white. The next day, we found out that our white friends had arrived only minutes before and were allowed in without question, while all of the blacks in our group had been turned away. I was shocked and angry that in Detroit, in 1988, a public establishment was blatantly barring entry to blacks. (We later sued the establishment and it shut down soon afterwards.)
It was when I stood over our son sleeping in the nursery that the import of the incident crashed down around me. Until then, my baby had been a perfect bundle of possibility. Suddenly, I realized that despite our protests, petitions and middle-class striving, some would never see past the color of our baby's skin. "I thought it would be different for you," I wept as he slumbered. Six years before his "I Have a Dream" speech, King once stated that, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" But reaching out to help others requires a level of empathy that seems to be absent from society today. Our political and cultural zeitgeist – as it was in the 1960s – is mean-spirited and intolerant. People of privilege and power see fairness as a threat to their well-being. As a parent responsible for creating a world that I wanted my children to inherit, I often despair about how we got it so wrong.
Perhaps King was also sensing that a lack of empathy was keeping Americans from accessing our higher selves. And so, as he addressed the 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he shifted his rhetoric. To cut through the lofty ideals, he boiled it down to this: Look at my four little children – or the Puerto Rican child who is homeless after a hurricane, or the black teen gunned down by police, or the Honduran child who is tear-gassed at our border, or the child facing an active shooter at school. Treat them like a parent, and simply do for them what you would do for your own.