WHEN THE WORD, “NIGGER,” ROLLED off Carl’s tongue in midsentence at the dinner table, my husband and I put down our forks and gave him a hard look.
Our boy, a 9-year-old fourth grader, had been reading about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. when he came across the curse, the word used more than a half-century ago and still today by some to express superiority and contempt toward blacks.
Conversations like this with kids can go lots of places, but ours that night went to Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955 — the day the Montgomery police arrested Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African-American seamstress, for not giving up her seat to a white man on a crowded public bus.
We explained that for about a year after that, black people in that city stopped buying bus tickets from white people with the “N” word likely in their vocabulary.
They were sick of paying the driver and then stepping down to enter the bus through a rear door for a seat in the back; sick of not getting a stop at every corner in black neighborhoods as was the custom in white neighborhoods; and sick of standing in packed buses over empty seats reserved for whites.
Some protesters participated in a complicated carpool system to get to work that involved about 300 privately owned vehicles.
But most black workers — an army of housekeepers and janitors, cooks and maids — still walked miles to and from work no matter bad weather or fatigue.
My little family and I, we together wondered more about these walkers who wanted seats on a first come, first serve basis so badly.
They got that on Nov. 15, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bus segregation laws unconstitutional.
Even still, all our talk about buses earlier this month brought up a specter of Jim Crow that I witnessed on a long bus ride I took with some black folks in 1997.
I lived in Minneapolis then and attended a United Methodist church in a black neighborhood. That summer, I volunteered as a leader with the high school youth group during a camping trip to the Collegiate Peaks area outside of Buena Vista.
After travelling about a thousand miles from the Twin Cities with only quick gas station stops, we reached Denver and pulled into a Pizza Hut for a late dinner.
The kids were hungry and excited about the pizza party before roughing it in the mountains. But our driver — a soft spoken black friend of mine named Jon — walked away from the white manager at the counter and boarded our bus full of kids tucking in their shirts to deliver disappointing news.
The manager wouldn’t seat us, even though from the dark parking lot we observed nary a customer on the other side of the windows in the brightly lit restaurant.
The posted closing time was minutes away, but the restaurant officially still was open.
So, my white friend, Scott, then hopped off the bus and strode into the restaurant to inquire again with the manager about serving our group.
As I watched him push through the glass door, I felt anxious about the whole situation — embarrassed at the manager’s refusal to seat us when Jon asked and indignant that Scott should need to ask again.
At this point, a “yes” to Scott felt as bad as the “no” to Jon. It seemed liked the best thing to do would be to move on, something I suspect black people in certain parts of this country grit their teeth and still do to avoid dust-ups.
Yet, I respected Scott, a co-driver on the bus, for leaving his seat behind Jon to protest something that seemed unfair.
Decades after the bus boycott in Alabama that we discussed with Carl over dinner, MLK’s legacy still has feet, still has people walking in the spirit of his unfinished peace and justice movement to level the field for all.
And this movement’s message of equality and cooperation trickles down to the playgrounds as one still relevant, appreciated and needed.
After our middle son’s 8th birthday party last week, I read a handwritten card from a very shy classmate that sums that up: “Dear Andy, you are my best friend because you help me when I fall on the ground.”
Thank you, MLK, for leading us this way.
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-746-0942 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.