Growing Up Loving Martin


As a child, I believed that there were only three people in the world who had never sinned. My daddy, Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Well, there was a 4th person – our pastor at the time, Reverend Johnson. But one day he yelled really loud during a Sunday sermon and I had to take him off my sin-less list).


Her name was Heather. She was in my kindergarten class. I was absolutely enthralled with her long red hair and the smattering of freckles across her nose. I wanted her to be my friend very badly.

Our teacher would always pick two children to lead the line to the bathroom and to recess. One day, Miss Martha picked Heather to lead the line. And then, to my delight, she picked me as well. I figured Miss Martha just knew Heather and I would make very good friends. I rushed to the front of the line and eagerly reached for Heather’s hand.

But she protested and quickly hid her hand behind her back. Miss Martha waited a moment as I held out my hand to Heather again. “Heather,” she said. “Take your partner’s hand.”
“No,” said Heather. “I will not hold a colored girl’s hand.” (It was 1980, but she still used the word “colored”).
Miss Martha tried talking with Heather a little bit, but she refused to hold my hand, and eventually a new partner was found for Heather. I need not detail the shame and humiliation I felt as I slid to a new spot in line.

That was the day I realized that I was Black.

I remember crying to my mother that evening as I recounted the story. I remember her wise, comforting words. She taught my sisters and I about sense of self, about our identities as “young ladies” of color, but most importantly, about our identity as children of the Most High God.

At that age, I learned to be proud because I was my Mommy’s girl, God’s daughter, and the same color as Martin Luther King, Jr.

During my junior high and high school years, I would recite the entire “I Have A Dream” speech at the annual MLK program in my parent’s church. I had it memorized word for word (and it’s not short), and I would perform the speech with dramatic passion. I was moved by his eloquence; his words sank into my soul.

One year in college, my mother sent me a tape that contained recordings of some of King’s lesser-known speeches and sermons. It was eye-opening for me to hear him preach a “regular” sermon in a regular church. This week I suspect that “King” and “Obama” are going to show up in the same sentence quite often. I don’t necessarily see the two men as similar. Although many regard King as a secular, political figure, he was first a preacher. In listening to the old recordings that my mother sent, I discovered that behind the image of this great historical figure, there was a man who simply had a heart for the things of God. He was a man who doubted, who got tired and discouraged in the face of indescribable adversity (- jailed over 18 times, nearly stabbed to death, his house bombed 3 times). But he always came back to trusting in His Lord and standing in courage on his faith. And God used Him mightily.

There are portions of his sermons that continue to speak to me in the midst of my own journey.

There was his unforgettable Funtown sermon (I was unable to find the text online), where he, the great orator, struggles to find the words to explain to his 6 year-old little girl that she cannot go to the amusement park because she is Black. There is his illustration of Psalm 30:5 and demonstration of God moving on their behalf during the Montgomery bus boycott in “A Knock At Midnight.” (You really should read the last several paragraphs of this sermon).  There is his final exhortation in the sermon “Unfulfilled Dreams“:

Oh this morning, if I can leave anything with you, let me urge you to be sure that you have a strong boat of faith. The winds are going to blow. (Yes) The storms of disappointment are coming. (Yes) The agonies and the anguishes of life are coming. (Yes, sir) And be sure that your boat is strong, and also be very sure that you have an anchor. (Amen) In times like these, you need an anchor. And be very sure that your anchor holds. (Yes, Glory to God)

It will be dark sometimes, and it will be dismal and trying, and tribulations will come. But if you have faith in the God that I’m talking about this morning, it doesn’t matter. (Yes) For you can stand up amid the storms. And I say it to you out of experience this morning, yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash. (Yes, sir) I’ve heard the thunder roll. (Yes) I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus, saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, (Yes, sir) never to leave me alone. (Thank you, Jesus) No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me. Never to leave me alone. (Glory to God)

And when you get this faith, you can walk with your feet solid to the ground and your head to the air, and you fear no man. (Go ahead) And you fear nothing that comes before you. (Yes, sir) Because you know that God is even in Crete. (Amen) If you ascend to the heavens, God is there. If you descend to hell, God is even there. If you take the wings of the morning and fly out to the uttermost parts of the sea, even God is there. Everywhere we turn we find him. We can never escape him.

14 thoughts on “Growing Up Loving Martin

  1. Thank you for sharing that heartwrenching story from kindergarten. How far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go… Blessings on you, and on your wise, strong mother.

    I do appreciate how the Obama team is working to link people with service projects for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I’ve gotten two e-mails from already today! Still trying to figure out something for JoyDad and I to do with Rose.

  2. I’d like to think that Heather grew up to deeply regret her childhood bigotry, but it’s shocking how many Heathers are still out there spewing their hatred.

    And yet, I have the audacity to hope that the election of Barack Obama brings us one step closer to a Heather-free world.

  3. In light of my “kindergarten experience”, it is AMAZING for me to see an African American man become president. I cannot help but feel proud! Truthfully… politically Obama does not stand for some of the things I value greatly: the sanctity of life for the unborn child and the sanctity of marriage. That being said, I pray for him (and his family) – for protection, strength and wisdom from above – as he leads this country.

    As for the Heather in my class, I hold no ill will against her whatsoever. I suspect she was only behaving the way she’d been taught. I trust that she has had a heart change in the last 28 years…

  4. Jeneil, thanks for sharing. I am sorry that you had to deal with the ‘Heathers’ of this world. I think white people like me are often ignorant about how many times black people still feel judged by their skin in today’s world. Sadly so.

    A friend of mine was dissed in a country club in a fancy part of town not too long ago. I couldn’t believe it! I think if I had been there you would have seen quiet little Sumi getting seriously angry and as bold as a lion! (It has happened on a few, very rare occasions in my life.) Not that I think it would have done much good.

    Anyway…a question…I will be teaching my history class on Martin Luther King on Tuesday, and I am looking for a couple of really good quotes about him or made by him. Do you have a favorite quote?

  5. I am so sorry that you have that memory. I am so glad that God has freed you from any ill will toward her. I praise God that I was raised in such a way that never considered any kind of skin color, nationality, etc. People were people. We all need the Lord and as my dad used to say, “We all put our pants on one leg at a time…”

    You and I probably share most (if not all) of the same political views. Although God chose to make me with Caucasian skin; I couldn’t help but go to bed on election night wishing that Abraham Lincoln could see that Obama was elected in our country. I pray that he will live up to the calling that is now before him. If there was ever a man in office (and his family) who needed prayer covering it is him (them)-with all of the media, celebrities, and over all attention focused on he and his family. It’s definitely not just about “being the President.”

    I was reflecting earlier tonight on how appropriate it is that Martin Luther King Day is the day before the inauguration. Thank you for the links to some of his earlier messages! I will look forward to checking them out!

  6. I grew up in a pretty much 100% white town in the Midwest. I did not see my first black person IRL until I was about eight years old; until then I had only ever seen Susan and Gordon on Sesame Street.

    My parents were not racist, but I am embarrassed to admit some of my older relatives are. I have an uncle that throws around the “N” word like it is something funny and makes other racial slurs about Hispanics, etc. It’s pretty disgusting. I am actually kind of relieved that we cannot afford to go home for Christmas because I do not want him or my grandpa using that word around my kids.

    I didn’t really get to experience being around all different races and cultures until I grew up and joined the Navy. Now when I do go home (our trips home are getting fewer and farther between with the number of babies we have) everyone in my town looks so much alike, it actually scares me. I drive around feeling weird, like “Why is everyone so WHITE?!” It just feels odd now; I cannot believe that I didn’t grow up around any black, Hispanic, or Asian people! I never thought all the people in my town looked the same until I actually got out into the world and I realized there were some pretty neat things and people beyond the cornfields of Nebraska and small-town living.

    I am very happy to say, though, that because we are a military family, our children are growing up around different races and cultures. My oldest daughter’s best friend from preschool when we lived in Hawaii was a girl who spoke fluent Spanish. My daughter has been to birthday parties for black classmates, Hawaiian classmates, and Asian classmates, etc. (we were actually minorities in Hawaii with our blonde hair and blue eyes).

    I have also noticed when my daughter draws pictures of a bunch of children playing on a playground she draws both black and white children automatically. I never did that growing up because all my playmates were white and I just never thought to draw black children, but it is just automatic for my daughter. I honestly cannot imagine in a million years that she would ever react to a child of a different race the way Heather reacted to you in 1980. It wouldn’t even cross her mind that another child is a different color than her.

    And I like it that way 🙂

  7. Great story about those sorts of moments that mark our lives and cause us to seek after a higher truth. The truth that we are children of God, precious, loved, honored. That God says not only that he wants to remember who you are, but more importantly whose you are. The tides are turning in our nation, and I can imagine what an emotional experience it is to see what MLK stood for and is respected for on Jan. 19 be captured in a most profound way on Jan. 20. I sure am proud to hold your hand as we march through this life together, and thanks for holding mine.

  8. you’re black??????

    (tee hee)

    i LOVE your mom’s reaction to all of it .. the incredible dignity that she summoned in the face of such hateful, disgraceful behavior. it speaks volumes about why you are the amazing person that you are – the strong, yet sensitive mother that you have become, and the friend and guide for each and every one of us who read your words.

    i am so proud to call you my friend.

  9. funny. that’s exactly what brandon said to me shortly after we got married. he had just gotten glasses for the first time. he put them on in front of me, blinked hard a few times and then exclaimed, “you’re black????”

  10. Thanks for sharing that story. What is as appalling as Heather’s behavior is that the teacher made YOU go back in line and picked a new line leader to go with Heather. Just reinforcing Heather’s beliefs. Ugh.

    (And Brandon is funny….)

  11. Thanks for sharing. Interestingly enough, I was just thinking this evening about some of the people in elementary, jr. high and even high school who were actually quite bigoted and did not hesitate to make it known. Your story also makes me think of reactions of teachers (or those in authority) to such bigotry. Some responded well and others did not. I wonder if those classmates are still allowing that bigotry in their lives and if they are now raising children in the same ignorance. Of course, I wonder how they took the news of a president who is actually black. The thought made me smile. I do hope those hearts have changed over the years, but I know there is a great possibililty they have only become more entrenched in the bog of bigotry that is too much a part of the small North Georgia town I grew up in.

    I just thank God for being the restorer He is. Old hurts, old pains, and old disappointments can all be washed away with the gift of forgiveness. I, too, have forgiven those who brought me pain in the past. I give God the glory! Be blessed!

  12. Oh, Jeneil, I was just smiling as I read your post, anticipating you and Heather becoming great friends. Then, my smile turned to tears. 😦 It breaks my heart (and fills me with a righteous anger!) to think about your little girl heart being broken, your little girl smile wavering as you held back tears that no little girl should have to shed.

    Sigh. Sniff.

    “For God does not show favoritism.” (Romans 2:11)

    Over the weekend, I watched “Nightjohn”, a movie that I had never heard of before Elaine’s (“Peace for the Journey”) recent post. One of the main character’s was a little girl named Sarny. I loved her spirit! It was a disturbing but excellent movie, and I highly recommend it.

    Oh, for the day when we will all finally be free of oppression! Come, Lord Jesus!

  13. Thank you for sharing. I am so out of my blogging loop since Christmas but, you’re getting me back into it! (That MLK quote illustrates a draft I have to finish.) What strength of character he modeled and you learned from your mom. Coincidentally, tomorrow morning my daughter does an oration for school. MLK was a master at them…his voice echoes in every “yes” on the screen.

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