Three Mothers, a Reflection on MLK Day
by Shellen Lubin
January 30, 2021
NARRATOR: Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. When he was a little boy, he would play with children in the playground of all colors. He played happily with all his friends every day. Then one day, Tom and Billy didn’t come to the playground, and Martin went to knock on his friends’ door. When Tom and Billy’s mother came to the door, she was not smiling, and she didn’t even say hello.
MARTIN: Can Tom and Billy come out to play?
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: No, they can’t.
MARTIN:Are they sick?
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: No, they’re not sick. Just run along now, Martin.
MARTIN: Can they play tomorrow?
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: Now, look here, Martin. It was all right for you to play together when you were younger. But now you’re all in school. So it’s best that you go your own different ways.
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: Because you’re not white, like us. Your skin is not white, like ours.
NARRATOR: And she shut the door in his face. Tom and Billy didn’t understand either.
TOM: Why can’t we play with Martin, mama?
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: Martin’s people are not like our people.
NARRATOR: Martin looked at his skin. The brown color of it was just a fact— a fact like the sky was blue and the grass was green. What did it have to do with friendship? He decided to ask his mother what this was all about.
MARTIN’S MOTHER: Martin, what did they teach you in school about slavery?
MARTIN: Slavery? They taught me that some people were brought to this country to work in the fields and on the plantations, and that some of them were very good and worked very hard but others were lazy and didn’t want to work at all.
MARTIN’S MOTHER: That’s what they taught you? Some people were brought here? And those who didn’t want to be slaves were lazy?
MARTIN: Yes. But then we had the Civil War and after that people couldn’t own slaves anymore, so all the slaves were freed.
MARTIN’S MOTHER: This country has a strange way of teaching its children about the history of America. Somepeople don’t want to own the truth of how the Europeans took this land from the people who already lived here, and how it became the country we know today.
MARTIN: But what does that have to do with my brown skin?
MARTIN’S MOTHER: Oh, baby, it shouldn’t have anything to do with the color of your skin, but it does. That, and what some people, like Tom and Billy’s mother, feel they have to teach their children. You’ve got to be taught these things to believe them.
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: (speaking to Tom and Billy) The Negroes were savages in Africa. They lived in tribes in the jungle, and they didn’t speak any real language. They didn't wear real clothes or anything, and went around everywhere barefoot. The tribes fought each other and killed each other all the time. The word is uncivilized. They were uncivilized. They were very lucky that we took them from that jungle and brought them to America. We even taught them about Jesus Christ and Christianity so they could save their souls.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, in the Liebowitz home, Chana’s mother was answering her questions.
CHANA: We learned in temple that slavery is bad, right, mama?
CHANA’S MOTHER: Yes, slavery is bad. Very very bad. Our people were slaves in ancient Egypt for many years, and had to flee to gain our freedom. That’s what Passover is all about, the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Of course, when most Jews came to this country, it was after slavery was over, after the American Civil War. But this country was built on slavery. Well, not in the north. We didn’t have slaves in the north.
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER:And then we fought the Civil War, which was all about states having the right to make their own laws and not be ruled by the federal government.
TOM: Did we win?
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: No, we didn’t.
TOM: That’s terrible.
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: Yes, it is. That’s why we still fly the Confederate flag, to show that we still haven’t given up, that we believe as we always believed. But then, after the Civil War, the Negro slaves were freed. So now not only did they get to come to America, they got to be Americans, and have all the same rights that we do, even though they didn’t come here the way our ancestors did.
CHANA’S MOTHER: The only way the slaves were freed was through a Civil War. The Northern states fought to end slavery, and the Southern states fought to keep their slaves.
CHANA: But this was hundreds and hundreds of years ago, right?
CHANA’S MOTHER: No, sweetheart, this was less than a hundred years ago.
TOM & BILLY’S MOTHER: But just because they have rights doesn’t mean we have to socialize with them. They live in their own neighborhoods, and go to their own schools, and I don’t want you having anything to do with them.
CHANA’S MOTHER: But just because we should all be equal, doesn’t mean we are. Which is why we march for civil rights. All men are created equal.
CHANA: But then why are all our neighbors white? And why are all the kids in my school white?
CHANA’S MOTHER:People want to be with people who are like them: people who look like them, people who believe what they believe, people who pray as they do.
MARTIN’S MOTHER: These are the things people might say, but even when they’re somewhat true, they leave out so much. And most of these are outright lies, ugly lies.
MARTIN: So what is the truth?
MARTIN’S MOTHER: Oh, my love, we’re still finding out the whole truth. But let me tell you this -- our ancestors were stolen from our homelands--some tricked and some brutally taken--and brought to this country on big ships where they were packed in like cattle, and treated like cattle, too. Then when they got here, they were forced into slavery. Their lives were not their own, their bodies were not their own, families were wrenched apart, mothers and children, husbands and wives. Everyone was forced to work for a master, and treated horribly, not like people at all. In the North, the cities were built by slaves; in the South, the plantations were worked by slaves. Homes were managed by slaves. Children were raised by slaves. And those slaves, our forefathers and mothers, had no rights at all. The government considered slaves property, and all the work they did for their whole lives was for someone else’s benefit, never for themselves or their own families.
MARTIN: But the Civil War?
MARTIN’S MOTHER: The North ended slavery before the South did, and that’s why we had a Civil War. By that time the North wanted all people to be free, and the South wanted to keep slavery.
MARTIN: So if the South had won the war we would be slaves?
MARTIN’S MOTHER: What a horrid thought. Well, they didn’t. The North won the war. And that made us legally free.
MARTIN’S MOTHER: Slavery was no longer legal. And right after the Civil War, all men--not yet women--were allowed to vote and hold office, and things started to get better.
MARTIN:Why not women?
MARTIN’S MOTHER: Oh, baby, so much still had to change. And a lot of people resist change. A lot of white people couldn’t stand when black and brown people could vote and hold office. So many white people couldn’t stand it, that there was a horrible backlash.
MARTIN’S MOTHER: People who want things to go back the way they were and will hurt other people to make it happen. There were battles and massacres and many different ways of trying to take away our rights, including our right to vote. And that included, unfortunately, a lot of white people to this day who want to stay separate from us, want nothing to do with us, want to believe that they’re better, that they deserve more. Because that’s the only way they can live with themselves.
END OF SCENE