For me, there has never been a more profound moment than the death of my mother. On December 31, 2011, my sisters, brother and I laid my mother to rest. I sat with my young nieces and nephews and crafted her obituary and her eulogy. Mildred Taylor did not give public speeches, she was not at the March on Washington in 1963, and to my knowledge she never spent time in jail in Birmingham, New York, where she grew up, or in California where she lived most of her adult life. Yet the path she walked was very much the path of justice, equity, decency and democracy. While she will never be mentioned in the same colloquy with Martin Luther King, Jr. her contributions seem relevant. In a sense, my mother fashioned her own eulogy just as Martin Luther King did. As King stated, “Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is lifes final common denominator — that something we call death.”
My mother never wanted to talk about her life achievements or the end of life and would never agree to a long, ceremonious funeral. I knew that she would tell me not to talk too long at her funeral and not to speak of her dreams or accomplishments. It was only within the past year that I learned of her desire to play the piano one day at Carnegie Hall. She played the piano in church and taught lessons at home but I had no idea that she had such dreams of grandeur.
Only in the moment did I remember that she was the first African woman to work at Moores Department store in Lompoc, Calif., where she became well-known and beloved by so many in the community. In reflecting about her life and her friendships I remembered that her dear friend Dorothy Jackson became the first African American school principal in Lompoc, a graduate of Bethune Cookman who was educated in the light of Mary McLeod Bethune. Dorothy educated thousands of children before she died in 2005.
Before offering my own reflections on my mothers life, I recalled the day, April 4, 1968, when she called me into her bedroom — I was nine years old. She was weeping like Id never seen her weep. In fact, I had never seen my mother cry before. She held me in her arms and wept on this particular day. As she held me it became clear that she just heard the news of the assassination of this man — Martin Luther King. By now she was hearing the words of Robert Kennedy, on what was supposed to be a routine campaign stop, who stood in the back of a flatbed truck and asked an aide, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?” They didnt, and it was left to Kennedy to tell them that King had been shot and killed that night in Memphis, Tenn. As I think about that day now, I imagine she felt tremendous responsibility after Kings death.
At her funeral, I was profoundly aware of my responsibility to live a life that is as decent, kind, caring and humane as my mothers. It was daunting for me to look up and see the members of the community who came to pay their respects — local store owners, gas station attendants, her mail carrier, next door neighbor, banker, minister, choir members and so many more. Each took a moment to tell a brief story about how she made their lives and the life of the community a little better each day.
Indeed, the civil rights movement was powered by marches, sit-ins, arrests, forms of protest and courageous acts of civil disobedience. The movement was also inspired by more divine, day-to-day acts of decency, civility and justice imbued in lives well lived. My mother was 77 years old. Those of her generation have done a great deal of work and still have more to do. Some could not do great things but did small things in a great way. As King remarked, “It does not matter how long you live, but how well you do it.” She did it well. I have been witness to how well many men and women like my mother lived their lives. I bear the responsibility to live up to the standard that has been set by the men and women who guided, educated and trusted me with the daily responsibilities that come with living in and sustaining a democracy.
As one of many educators at the University of Washington it is distinctly powerful to welcome in and be responsible for the education of the next generation of leaders. Their struggle will not take place at a lunch counter and may not be one of de jure segregation or separate water fountains. Yet, more than 40 years after the death of Martin Luther King, the questions of the day are astonishingly similar. How do we provide access to high-quality public education for all of our children? Do we have an inspired vision for the reduction of unemployment, underemployment and poverty? How do we care for the young and the old guided by principles of decency and a vision of a good life? And the older challenge of what it means to be civil in our politicized social world.
As with all important questions of our time or any time, what is at stake for us now is a very practical matter of how we live the remainder of our lives and how we educate and prepare young people to live their lives. And as King said, “I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable.” But yet, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.