Civil Rights - Martin Luther King Day 2014

Civil Rights - Martin Luther King Day 2014

My aunt Patti Ann a 10 year old was told that when she felt low at school she should consider going home to get something to correct it. She lived 3 blocks away. Of course today we would never dream of telling a child or an adult something like that. I have been told that “poor Patti Ann” as she was called by her teachers was told her best way to treat a low was not be low. So things like playing tag on the playground or being in music was just not done. It was a different time for certain. In those days (the late 1940’s) this was accepted and thought to be an adequate treatment for her Diabetic condition.

So did this change just happen? Did society make schools accessible to people who were “different” than everybody else voluntarily? No of course not. These changes, already underway in more progressive school systems are now guaranteed by the section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973 (504), the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA). However, those laws actually began life as a result of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s, 60’s and beyond. These laws are tied to the history of the American Civil Rights movement. Make no mistake, without the civil rights movement we would not enjoy the benefits of public access to school facilities that we enjoy today. Here is a brief history.

In 1955 Rosa Parks, often called the mother of the Civil Rights movement, refused, when ordered to move from the white section of a Montgomery AL bus to the “colored” section as it was called. She was arrested for civil disobedience and thus was launched the Montgomery AL bus boycott. The story behind the story was that on that particular day in 1955 Rosa Parks entered the Bus as was specified by the local ordinance (the back door only). Once the white section filled the bus driver moved the white only sign behind the place were Ms. Parks was seated. The driver order Ms. Parks to move and she declined thus creating the infraction. Without the public disobedience of Rosa Parks it is unlikely that public transportation (including school buses) would include accommodations for handicapped persons. It is proper for the community of Diabetics to embrace Rosa Parks not just as the mother of the civil rights movement but also as the mother of rights for Diabetic children to be accommodated on school buses.

In 1957, while the Rosa Parks litigation was just getting started, the landmark case of the Little Rock 9 was coming to a conclusion. In the Fall of that year the Little Rock 9 were sent to Little Rock High School as part of a desegregation order. The resistance to the desegregation order was so intense that federal troops were employed to escort the students to school and during the day while in school. If we doubt that change is difficult or that change happens because it is good we need not do so after considering the Little Rock 9. There is a famous painting by Norman Rockwell of federal marshals escorting a little girl to school. That painting, in my opinion, clearly captures the difficulties of change. It is a difficult painting to look at and consider. The basis of the litigation that eliminated separate but equal education also is the basis of why diabetic children are integrated into the public school system. Today public schools are required to provide accommodation for children with disabilities including diabetes. Make no mistake we in this community owe a debt of gratitude to the Little Rock 9.

In 1963, following the struggle to integrate Ole Miss, Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham AL, for leading a protest against segregation in that city. After the protest was started the city sought and was granted an injunction against protests in the city. On the very next day Dr. King led a protest in Birmingham and was promptly arrested. That action led to one of the most beautiful documents ever written, a letter from the “Birmingham Jail”. On April 12 of that year eight Alabama clergyman wrote an open letter to the people of Birmingham which asked people to ignore the protest and settle their issues in court. Faced with brutal treatment in the jail Dr. King wrote a dense six page letter which outlines why people of color need to protest in order to press their First Amendment Right of Free Speech. The letter, wrote on recycled newspaper because the jail rules forbid writing material, was largely written in pieces and not put together for several months after the incident.

The finished letter contained the phrases “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider…”. Today his letter is studied by college students across the planet in college composition classes. It is a magnificent piece of writing, albeit dense in subject matter. Here is a full copy of the letter if you would like to read it.

On 28, 1963 Martin Luther King uttered the words “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive” as part of the ‘I have a Dream Speech’ on the Washington DC mall. He was speaking of the struggle for civil rights and while he was not speaking of diabetes specifically he was speaking of the struggle for civil rights in all areas of the community. Over time, every single stride in civil rights legislation has its basis in these and countless other actions in the legacy of the civil rights struggle.

It is true we are a long way from perfect in how we treat people with disabilities in general or Diabetes in particular. Our schools are not perfect, our workplaces need improvement and while we have come a long way from the days of my Aunt Patty Ann’s days in school. Yet we are not where we should be and the struggle goes on. Our heroes are the moms who demand more from schools, the ADA lawyers who stand ready to litigate to insure our children’s rights in schools, and the mainly the kids who go to school and are on the true front line of our civil rights issues. Sure most diabetic kids are accommodated reasonably well in schools. But we have kids who face hostile school environments every day.

Let’s remember those prophetic words of Martin Luther King who said we must “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive”. When we stand together and demand proper treatment of our kids in school and our fellow workers in the workplace, we will find that our combined struggle will be redemptive for our community. Today please resolve that our kids and our adult diabetics will not be alone in hostile environments. Their struggle is our struggle, their success or failure will be our legacy. Today on, Martin Luther King day 2014, renew your resolve that our kid’s and our adults struggles will not be in vain.



Thanks so much for this blog, Rick. It is all too easy to forget why we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. And thank you, Norman Rockwell!

Thanks for your fabulous insight on civil rights, the History of the movement, Dr. King's vital words, and how we need to stand up and work to make sure no child or adult, no one with a different ethnicity, sexual orientation, or diabetes be forced to endure a hostile environment. Great Piece, Rick. I do so appreciate your writings and the sincere compassion that you express so well through them..

God bless,

Thank you ladies. I appreciate your comments. The Normal Rockwell painting is his vision of a real photograph of a little girl leaving an elementary with Federal Marshals protecting her. The most striking part to is the faded word on the back wall.

Like all Rockwell paintings this one tells a story. Notice the uniformity of the walk by the federal marshals. They are resolute in this purpose. Then we have the little girl. Perhaps her parents in poverty scrimped and saved to send her to her new school in the best dress they could afford. There are no stains or derbies on the little girl this gives us hope. Why? Because everything thrown at her all day (words, hate, trash), missed. We have hope that someday she can attend school without a federal Marshal and again nothing thrown at her, words, food, paint, will hit her. Finally look what she is carrying. She is apparently ready to do homework (she is walking away from school after a day of bitterness). One can imagine she is very hard working and studious. She knows the stakes of failure. She will never fail. She is also resolute. She will not fail if she gets a fair shot.

I hope you love the painting as much as I do. To me this is the first way I connected to the civil rights movement. When I saw the word on the wall behind her, I think I got it for the very first time. The little girl, yes she deserves a wonderful education just like any other kid


I chose politics as a profession because of Robert Kennedy. As you know the Indiana campaign was a long shot for RFK. I was in grade school and I saw him on TV, I was inspired. I went to his local headquarters and some gave me two posters and some streamers. I attached them to my Bike and proudly rode all over my neighborhood. I decided on one of those rides, I would be a politician. The next morning I woke up and mom told me Kennedy had won I was so proud and so excited. I knew I had backed the right man. I was 10, but as I proudly told my almost 11.

Then I woke up one day and mom told me the awful news. I cried all morning, and was sent home from school. When my hero was shot, I was overwhelmed.

I stuck with my choice, never wavering, however I changed my focus. I made two inevitable choices. 1. I would never run for office, instead I would help elect those who shared my vision. 2. I would do my politics locally. I wanted to improve what I could see. I had a nice career and remained true to that desire, born on that bicycle. I love helping people have better lives.

I still cry when I see nearly all pictures of RFK they are among the most emotional photographs I have ever viewed.

Rick, I do love the Rockwell painting. I'm older than you--the Sixties civil rights movement was very real to me, my family and friends. We tried to do our share in demonstrating and working in voter registration, though in New York--so much safer than the South. I won't bore you with my experiences, but some of the friends I made during that turbulent time have remained friends for life. And I will never forget shaking hands with Robert Kennedy, Attorney General, on one of our missions to Washington DC!