Channeling Dr. King

By Clare Hanusz

One of my sweetest memories of last year’s week-long occupation of Governor Lingle’s office while waiting in vain for her discuss school furloughs took place late in the evening, after the media and well wishers had gone home, leaving behind a group of about a dozen college students, parents and three kids in elementary school.

Among sleeping bags, snacks, homework and laptops, someone had brought a book called “Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down” by Andrea Pinkney, a beautifully illustrated children’s book written about the lunch counter sit in in 1960 when black students practiced non-violence resistance to “fight” for the right to sit and order with whites.

There were sheriffs assigned to watch over us through the night; the situation was clearly as surreal for them as it was for us. We were a generally mild-mannered group of folks who felt driven to take drastic measures in response to drastic times. They had never been faced with civil disobedience by a group of cheerful parents and youth, and did not yet know if their orders would be to arrest us or not.

The mood alternated between tense and strangely comfortable. One of the officers, a big burly guy, was siting in a chair in front of the main door. My 8-year-old son had discovered the Sit-In book, and walked over to him and asked if they could read it together. I witnessed the event, expecting the officer to politely tell my son no thanks. Instead, he said sure, and Ali cuddled next to him and they shared the story. It was quite a sight.

As I listened to the story, I felt as if the spirit of those four students in Greensboro, Martin Luther King Jr., and the others who engaged in non-violent struggles for civil rights were together with us on the 5th floor of the state capitol. That thought helped sustain me through those long days and nights. We, like them, were in the minority, criticized by many, yet compelled to take a stand for a change we believed in. Knowing that those folks carried on and went forward facing far more risk and danger than we did provided me with courage and inspiration.

As I watched Ali and the officer I also reflected on the life lessons I was teaching my children. Ali and Derya were there in the Governor’s office completely by choice – they knew they could be at home in their soft beds with access to bathrooms, but they too thought that educational furlough days for kids was a lousy idea that should be challenged and they were excited to do their part.

I’ve always felt a special connection to Dr. King. In the fall of 1967, my parents had the privilege of seeing him when he gave a speech in Toledo, Ohio. I was there too, floating in utero. My imagined memory of being in his presence provided me with unique link to the man who would be assassinated a few weeks after my birth.

I grew up learning about Dr. King, and from a young age he became one of my heroes for his courage to stand up to injustice, both racial and economic, his criticisms of war and the military industrial complex and his belief that all children deserve to be valued by society, which included the right to a quality education. Growing up I gravitated naturally towards people who “walked the talk” of King’s vision and commitment, and was (and am) fortunate to have these living heroes as part of my life.

Now a parent myself, I want my children to have heroes, too. Not Hollywood celebrities or athletes, but women and men and youth who strive to make the world a better place in big or small ways, locally, nationally and globally. I want Ali and Derya to know that they can, even as children, play a role in shaping our world, by the choices they make. Defending a kid who is getting picked on or writing a letter to an elected official or choosing a donation to a charity in lieu of birthday toys or by committing acts of civil disobedience – these actions help contribute to a better world.

Coming off the end-of the-year holiday season, filled with traditions, my children and I prepare for another holiday tradition, the annual MLK Jr. Day “parade” in Waikiki. I don’t even know what to call the event exactly – a parade for some, a political rally or social event for others. It’s a bizarre assembling of beauty queens, marching bands, soldiers, peace groups, political parties, school groups, churches, and the Hare Krishnas, all assembled in the Magic Island parking lot at 8AM for a festive walk down Kalakaua to Kapiolani Park.

We always seek out the peace groups to walk with, my local heroes that for me best embody King’s legacy on King’s day. The kids carry their hand-made signs with visions of justice. Every year they ask me why there are soldiers in the parade when they know MLK preached and practiced non-violence and was highly critical of the militarism in the US (which he referred to in 1967 as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”)

I too wonder how Dr. King. would feel about the use of his day for a march in his name by groups he had fundamental opposition to, and I tell my children that I don’t really get it either, but I’m just glad that so many people are taking part of their day off work and school to honor Dr. King in their own way, just as we are doing.

And we all march forward, together.


Clare Hanusz is a Honolulu attorney who focuses on immigration and nationality law and civil rights. She also works closely with human trafficking victims.

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