I spent my early adult life in the Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta, Georgia, not too far from The King Center. During the summer months, I’d put back a few beers when I got off work, and catch the bus to Turner Field. (Don’t drink and drive, y’all. MARTA is perfect for getting to and from Braves games.) If I was particularly drunk after a Braves loss, I’d get off the bus a few blocks early, and sit for a little while on the benches in front of The King Center on a warm summer night, before wandering my way home. Every time I planted myself on those benches and gazed upon the building named after Dr. King, I couldn’t help but be proud of being from the same city as such a great man.
I have always been impressed with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and my appreciation started at a young age. When I was a child at Evansdale Elementary School in Chamblee-Tucker, we took field trips to The King Center. Ms. Senn, Ms. Childs, Ms. Sparks, and Ms. Reece all stressed the importance of his work–what he meant to our city, and society as a whole.
Sharing the work of Dr. King has always been something I am passionate about, especially when it comes to educating young people. Children are curious, and they want answers to questions adults take for granted. When I was on my class field trips, I had questions about everything Dr. King did. “Why did he go to jail?” – “Why did he make everyone march?” – “What did his dream mean?” Bigotry is something we can end at a young age, if we teach children the meaning of equality, and share the stories of people who worked towards achieving equality.
Two years ago, I was still living in Atlanta, and my “Braves buddy” Ryan hit me up on Facebook – as he usually did if he wanted to catch a game. I used to attend at least two Braves games a week with Ryan. We met on the Turner Field MARTA shuttle leaving from Underground Atlanta and struck up a conversation. When the bus arrived next at The Ted, we exchanged numbers and agreed to catch a game together soon. Once I got inside, I purchased my usual (Sweetwater 420 and a hotdog) before finding my seat. A few minutes later, the guy from the bus came and sat down next to me. (“Wait, your seat is here!? AWESOME!”) From that day on, we have been close friends. I got to know Ryan, his wife Kari, and their young son Jayden. When I moved away from Atlanta, I was bummed to lose my Braves games with Ryan.
“Hey Shane, I need a really huge favor. I need a babysitter. Kari is out of town on a business trip, and I’m sick as a dog. You mind taking Jayden to a Braves game?” One hour later I had two $10 tickets from StubHub, and I arrived at Ryan’s house in East Atlanta. Ryan looked rough, and I didn’t want to be in the same boat. It was still early, and the first pitch wasn’t until 7:30. “Hey Ryan, I’m gonna take Jayden to dinner before the game and let you rest. You don’t look so hot.” Ryan gave me a wry smile, and said, “Go Braves,” before coughing up three of his ribs. That was my cue to get out the door with little Jayden.
Jayden had just turned five years old, so everything that came out of his mouth was a question. I decided to go grab a burger at The Vortex in Little Five Points. Jayden approved, but only after I assured him that they would definitely have french fries. [ref]Don’t skewer me for taking a kid to a bar. It was a quiet weekday afternoon. I’d never take your child to a busy bar at night. Duh. Vortex is probably the best burger spot in Atlanta, and kids love walking through the massive skull entry.[/ref] While we were driving through L5P, Jayden saw some hippies playing hackey sack on the corner. He demanded we go see them before we got food. Since it was still early and we had time to kill, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
At this juncture, the day took an uncomfortable turn. In the south, where you find hippies, bars, and fun times, you also tend to find highly vocal men and women with large signs depicting gruesome images of Jesus Christ. “Repent now! Jesus died for your sins! You are living a life of sin!” One of these amateur preachers was posted up about 20 feet from the hackey sack guys. Jayden noticed, and then saw this five-by-five poster of Christ’s blood covered body.
“Hey Shane. Who is that?,” Jayden asked. “Who is who?,” I replied. “Who is the person in that picture?” I paused for a moment, because I didn’t really want to get into a philosophical religious discussion with a child. I’m also an Atheist.
“That’s Jesus.” I paused again after replying, and looked at Jayden. His face lit up. “I know about Jesus. Mom and Dad told me about him.” I smiled, “Well, that’s good.” At this point, I tried to divert our conversation, “You want some french fries?” It was too late. Jayden’s young mind had already been formulating questions. “Why is Jesus all covered in blood?” My stomach churned. This is not the conversation I wanted to have with my friend’s five-year-old son. When dealing with a barrage of questions from a young child, it’s best to keep your answers short, and divert to another subject. “He’s covered in blood, because that was right before he died.”
“JESUS DIED?! Dad didn’t tell me he died?!” Jayden looked shocked. Now it was time to backpedal and try to make this conversation as positive as I possibly could. Ryan and Kari had left out some important details regarding the history of Jesus, and I was going to be answering these questions whether I wanted to or not. “Yes, Jesus died. He was sentenced to death by a Roman guy named Pontius Pilate.” Jayden’s little brain was churning out questions so before he could hit me with anything else, I suggested, “Hey Jayden, let’s get walking towards the restaurant.”
As we headed towards the Vortex, Jayden still had plenty of questions left in the chamber. “Why did Ponch-tee-us Pirate want to kill Jesus?” I thought for a moment about attempting to explain the complicated politics of the Romans, but I had to make it simple so Jayden could grasp it. “The Romans didn’t like Jesus because he had some ideas that they didn’t like. He told a lot of people his ideas, and they got mad at him.” At this point, confusion set across little Jayden’s face. “But I thought Jesus was nice?” I laughed a little, “Of course Jesus was nice. Sometimes, nice people with controversial ideas catch the short end of the stick though.”
“What’s a controversial idea?,” Jayden chimed as I opened the door of The Vortex. “Well Jayden, his ideas really weren’t that controversial. That man we saw with the poster, he’s really not expressing what Jesus was all about.” I could see his little mind working away at everything I was saying, trying to put the pieces together. “Mr. Shane, my Mom and Dad say I should love Jesus. Do you love Jesus too?” Oh no. This is what I dreaded most. I didn’t want to lie to him, but I also didn’t want to send the wrong message about Atheism. “I love what Jesus stood for. He wanted everyone to love each other, no matter who they were, what they looked like, how much money they had, or where they came from. Jesus wanted to tell people about compassion and love, and I love that about Jesus.”
Jayden was fiddling with his straw, but still intrigued. “But they killed him?” I looked across the table. “Yeah, they killed him.” Satisfied with this answer, Jayden shifted the discussion to the menu. I was relieved to be taking softball questions about french fries. He told me about starting tee ball, and how his dad was teaching him to take ground balls at the park. Our waitress had tattoos on her neck and chest; Jayden seemed fascinated by the dragons on her neck. The waitress was obscenely well endowed, so when Jayden asked me about the dragon tattoos on her neck, I told him, “I didn’t really notice her neck tattoos. I was looking at the ones on her chest.” Jayden laughed, “Well, you should see them when she comes back! They look like dragons!” He didn’t understand the innuendo. Score one for Team Shane.
When the waitress arrived with Jayden’s french fries, and he began chattering about her tattoos. “Hey I really like the dragons on your neck!” Our waitress smiled, “Well, thank you.” She then pulled back her hair and showed him all her tattoos. She also had gauged ears, which sparked a round of questions from Jayden. After satisfying all his questions, Jayden turned to me and said, “Mr. Shane, I don’t know why you liked her chest so much. Her ears are way better!” The waitress turned her head and frowned at me. Score one for Team Jayden.
After finishing his french fries, we were about to leave when the discussion landed on tattoos again. A young man had just walked in, and he had a photo-realistic picture of Dr. King tattooed on his shoulder and the majority of his upper arm. (Slang game: a “half sleeve” in tattoo speak.) The guy was extremely muscular, and wearing a tank top. The lines of the tattoo were extremely dark, so it was probably fairly new, and he was light skinned so it stood out.
“Who is that?”
So there I was, sitting across from Jayden at The Vortex, facing an innocent question from a little boy about Dr. King. I knew it would be important for me to tread carefully. We had also caught the attention of two ladies sitting at the table next to us, both of whom appeared to be light skinned. I knew they were listening because they had heard Jayden’s question loud and clear through the nearly empty bar, and saw him point his finger.
“That’s Martin Luther King Jr.” My answer didn’t register at all. “Who is that?,” Jayden shot back quickly. I was hoping that perhaps Ryan and Kari had mentioned him. I had no such luck.
“Dr. King was a Christian preacher, but he was really more than that. He wanted everyone to love each other, and he wanted everyone to be equal. It didn’t matter where you were from, what color your skin is, what you look like, or anything like that. He just wanted everyone to love and care about each other. He was a very important man for black people, and he was from Atlanta, just like you.”
Jayden smiled and cocked his head. “That sounds a lot like what you said about Jesus.” Children get profound when they’re not trying to say anything important. “Yes, he was a lot like Jesus. In fact, a lot of people didn’t like him, just like a lot of people didn’t like Jesus. They thought Dr. King’s ideas were too controversial. Not too long ago, you and I wouldn’t have been able to be friends, because you’re black, and I’m white.”
The young black women at the adjacent table eavesdropped intently. Jayden laughed a little at how crazy my last statement sounded. “That doesn’t make any sense. You’re just lighter than me, and a lot bigger. That doesn’t mean we can’t go to baseball games and be friends, right?” I smiled and said, “Exactly. Dr. King wanted us all to love each other, and be friends.”
“I like being your friend Mr. Shane. My Mom says you’re crazy, but my dad always talks about you, so I think you’re cool.” I grinned, “Yeah, your Mom thinks I’m nuts, but sometimes, we have friends that are a little off. You’re a little crazy too, ya know.” He laughed at this. “I’m not crazy, YOU’RE crazy!” He was firmly back in kid mode again, but only for a moment.
“Hey Mr. Shane. Is Dr. King dead?,” Jayden looked at me with a stone-serious look. I frowned, “Yeah buddy, he’s been dead a long time.”
“Did they kill him too?”