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Martin Luther King, Obama And My Parents


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Last summer I had the pleasure of bringing my parents to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial down on the mall. It was a moving, if extremely hot, day for us, where things sort of came full circle for us. My parents weren’t born in the U.S. They chose to move here in the 50’s when things were, shall we say, not great for black people. They become naturalized citizens, raised three kids here and only recently returned to their home country to retire. But I’d say that my parents, for all their embarrassing Caribbean ways during my teenage years (that’s another op-ed), are about as American as you get. Because they believed almost more than anyone else I’ve known in the American Idea. The idea that no matter who you are, if you put your head down and work, you should be able to make a decent life for yourself and your family.

That’s not to say that they didn’t face their fair share of racism when they moved here; they certainly did. From the employers who didn’t believe my dad’s qualifications for jobs, to the ones who wanted nothing to do with him until they heard his accent (“oh, you’re not from here. OK”); to the real estate agents who kept pushing my parents to certain neighborhoods, to one of my neighbors who tried to get the rest of our neighbors to sign a petition to keep us from moving into our house. Life in the US definitely had its moments.

Dr. Martin Luther King speaking against the war in Vietnam at the University of Minnesota

But despite all that, they remained in love with this country. And with that love came the right to criticize her, and they often did. We’d have spirited arguments around the dinner table about why the American people would elect X person, or why Y issue was ridiculous. They’d stress the importance of being involved in the political process, even if it’s just by voting (little did they know we’d all end up in politics at some point). They’d repeat the mantra that I guess all black parents tell their kids: basically, that we didn’t have a margin of error. We had to strive for perfection and work harder than everyone else because less was expected of us. They were hard on us for sure, but as I got older, I understood.

Every April, my dad and I would watch the entire Eyes on the Prize series in one weekend. It was always a sobering event. It would make me angry, sad, and thankful. Angry and sad for the obvious reasons. Thankful that this man and so many others like him were willing to do more than be passive; they were willing to stand up, be heard, be injured and be killed for the rights of their fellow man. My dad would use these viewings as an opportunity to remind me how lucky I was to live where I lived, go to school where I went to school, and have the life I lived. And he’d remind me that to squander that would be an insult to the memory of Dr. King and all that he fought for.

The circle was semi-closed when in 2009 I gave my parents quite a surprise. Working at the White House, I managed to get them a quick visit with the President. I probably should have warned my dad and his 80-year-old heart. People often ask me what my favorite moment of working for the President is, and it’s this: watching my dad hug the President of the United States with tears in his eyes. And watching my mom laugh because hugging the president is such a my dad thing to do.

Last summer, the circle was closed when I snapped a picture of my parents in front of the memorial. A memorial I never thought would get built, that was finished during the presidency of a man my parents never thought could get elected. As I sit and reflect on the legacy of Dr. King this weekend, I realize how none of THIS could have happened without him and it makes me thankful. Thankful for him and the leaders of the civil rights movement, thankful for my parents and grateful for the life I get to live. The dream is not complete, but we are getting there.

Daniella Gibbs Léger is vice president for the New American Communities Initiatives at the Center for American Progress. This piece originally appeared on Loop 21; reprinted with permission. Rally photo from the Minnesota Historical Society via Flickr.

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