It was the spring of 1968. Seven of us students from Kansas University were gleefully headed from Lawrence, Kan., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., anticipating acting out our personal freedom fantasies during a week on the beach.
That journey didn’t turn out as we had planned, but then fantasies rarely do. We headed southeast for the long journey to fulfilling our dreams which soon became more like nightmares as we crossed the bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tenn. We noticed multiple fires burning. There were military vehicles in the streets. Something was terribly wrong.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was lying dead in the city below, having been assassinated for a dream he had.
And there we were, seven mostly long-haired white guys in an old West Virginia-licensed station wagon, heading into The South at a pivotal moment—the civil rights era in the United States. Until that journey, none of us had ever personally been confronted with “Whites Only” bathrooms and drinking fountains. As we drove into Tennessee, our advanced education was just beginning as the shock waves were reverberating through the nation.
It’s now 2016 and Dr. King’s dream remains unrealized and the national conversation about racial equality is still ongoing. It has evolved in focus and fervor over time, but it is essentially the same.
In the children’s publishing and library business in which I work, the struggle to contribute to an elusive racial harmony continues. We created a graphic to help illustrate this point. As you can see, the racial mix in our country as of 2014 (center circle) is quite different from the racial mix of children depicted in the books that were published for their enjoyment and education in 2015 (left circle).
Dr. King of course was adamant that how we look on the outside not be the basis upon which we judge one another.
I have a dream that my four little 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.
Yet the most obvious quality that distinguishes the races is indeed how we look. As it turns out, the idea of everyone becoming colorblind was a simplistic effort to base our judgement of people only on their character. The problem, of course, is that from a geographic, economic and social distance, skin color is the only aspect of divesity that we can discern about each other, leaving us guessing about values and culture. So we need to get closer than that. Much closer. We each need to work smarter to understand others and to help them better understand us.
Children’s books offer all of us a wonderful means to educate our little ones about the cultures, values and daily lives of families very different from their own. But as illustrated in the graphic, the publishing industry has a long way to go in doing its part in furthering that education.
Efforts toward racial quality didn’t start with Dr. King’s I have a Dream speech. Nor will it end any time soon. We each must do what we can, when we can. We invite librarians, parents and teachers to commit to renew their efforts to select and share diversity-rich picture books with children. Books that can educate about how wonderfully varied we are as a country, and that share and explore the rich mixture of facial differences and family lives that will further enable grown children to make us stronger as a nation.
That could lead to us all being truly free at last.