A Southern-Raised White Woman’s Reflections on MLK Day

I always struggle with what to say on this day that we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s because he is truly one of the people I admire most in history. And, like so many of our heroes, his message is a lot more complex and challenging than a lot of people want to believe. And so, what happens on this day is that people of every political persuasion find some way to align their cause with the life and words of this great man. I’m not interested in doing that.

I spent my formative years living in Texas during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. But honestly, I was pretty clueless about it – because I was also white. One of my favorite authors, Jonathan Odell, captured my experience pretty well in this conversation.

As a young boy growing up in Mississippi, Odell describes how he was taught racism by his neighbor, “Miss Helen.” It shaped his view of the world. And then, as an adult, Odell talks about seeing video footage of a civil rights march on the anniversary of King’s assassination. He says that he finally came to the awareness that the people on the sidelines throwing rocks and shouting epitaphs were “his people.” That is a difficult realization to embrace.

So often when we read books or see movies about the Civil Rights Movement, we want to identify with the one white person who heroically battled racism (think: The Help). But the truth is that for me, that is not the story of my people. Reality has to be acknowledged – if for no other reason than it keeps me honest while taking stock of where I stand today when Black lives are on the line. As someone said recently, if you ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights Movement, now is your chance to find out.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.