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Four Life Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

Four Life Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

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Updated on Dec 22, 2009

I have a dream . . . .” Most of us recognize the rhetoric behind the Civil Rights Movement. But behind these famous quotes were men and women of action. Honor the rich heritage of these African-American leaders by transforming their words and deeds into personal life lessons for both you and your child.

Thurgood Marshall: “What is the quality of your intent?”

The story: In 1930, Thurgood Marshall was denied entrance to the University of Maryland because of his race. Undeterred, Marshall graduated instead from Howard University’s law school, became the Chief Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in 1954 argued the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case to the highest judicial body in the nation, later becoming the first African-American to sit on that Court.

The lesson: To help your children put Thurgood Marshall’s remarkable persistence into action, help them with their goal-setting. Have them determine something worth pursuing, first of all—and whether your daughter is trying to make the soccer team or your son is trying to get his Eagle Scout award, goal-setting is an important part of turning success into a routine. Break down long-term goals into smaller, more manageable steps, and most importantly, don’t be afraid of discussing potential setbacks or roadblocks and how to turn them into assets: after all, Marshall’s inability to gain admission to the University of Maryland sparked a lifetime of triumphantly championing Constitutional equality for all.

Little Rock Nine (Ernest Green): “We realized in 1957 that this was not an easy journey. It was one in which we thought we were simply exercising our right to the best education that was available in Little Rock, Arkansas.”

The story: The year was 1957 and three years after the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education case, the Little Rock schools were beginning the process of desegregation. Contrary to a federal court mandate, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Melba Beals and Themla Mothershed from entering the all-white Little Rock Central High. This prompted President Eisenhower to force integration; the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. National Guard then escorted the Little Rock Nine to school on September 25, 1957, where they would brave physical, emotional and psychological abuse from many of their white classmates and community members for the next year as they stood together for equality.

The lesson: The Little Rock Nine exemplified courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Fortunately, everyday courage doesn’t have to mean physical or emotional endangerment under such duress. Encourage your child to do something outside the realm of his or her comfort zone daily. Even simple, low-risk activities like sitting by someone new on the playground or volunteering an answer in class can be very empowering for children. Little, daily victories can help children to build up their self-esteem for those character-testing decisions down the road that might require real moral courage.

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