Martin Luther King

Inequality isn’t right! – racism in the U.S.

Other themes:

slavery, bullying

The Problem

Listen to this and see what you think.

Simon leaned across the table and, making sure the teacher couldn’t hear, said, “Hey, Mani, or whatever your name is, is it true that where you come from your tribe’s only got one brain between them and you have to share it round? Eh?”

Mani, who’d only been in the class a few days, ignored the insult and got on with his work in silence. But then the teacher called him up to read.

“Oh, Mani, or whatever your name is,” – Simon said that every time – “get him to teach you to speak proper English, will ya?” He turned and nudged Amjid sitting next to him.

Amjid knew what Mani was going through. It had only stopped for Amjid when the bullies learnt they weren’t getting anywhere. Then they’d given up – and eventually he’d been accepted. But it had been rough.

Now Amjid had a choice. He longed to tell Simon to stop getting at Mani, but it was so much easier to go along with it. If he got on the wrong side of Simon and the gang, perhaps they’d start on him again.

Now think:

What should Amjid do? The easy thing, or the hard thing?

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

James and Betsey gazed down at their new baby. “Isabella,” murmured Betsey, “my Isabella.”

“Not your Isabella,” whispered James fiercely. “The master’s Isabella. She belongs to him. Nothing belongs to slaves like us.”

Betsey signed. She knew he was right. They were black slaves on a farm near New York in 1800 and that meant they were not even regarded as people, just property, to be bought and sold. She remembered how two of her children had been taken from her years before, literally carried from the slave house and driven away. The master had sold them, and she knew she would probably never see them again.

Betsey began to cry at the memory of it. For she was not “property” – she was a person, and people have feelings. And when your children are taken from you, it hurts, it really hurts.

However, the master liked Isabella, or Belle as she was known, for she grew up tall and strong, and able to work hard, and that was what mattered to hm. For the moment she was safe.

But when she was about your age, the master died and the new owner decided to sell at auction some of the property – including Belle. She was sold to a shopkeeper who beat her, then to an innkeeper, then to a farmer. And all the time her hatred of white people grew and grew – she used to pray that God would kill them all.

Eventually she married, another slave of course, and had five children.

Then a law was passed: older slaves were to be freed. Free? Belle could hardly believe it. It was too good to be true, surely.

And it was. Her master refused to free her at the promised time. She was so angry she ran away, even though it meant leaving her family. Some friendly people took her in.

It was there that Belle met with God. She suddenly became aware of him all around her, and ashamed of the bad feelings which had built up in her heart. And she understood what Jesus had come to do, to clean away all this anger and hatred. She let him come into her life. It changed her for ever. The bitterness against white people just slipped away.

She started to go to church and was astonished how she was treated – as a person. Later on she managed to visit her children – her husband had died – but there was nothing she could do for them.

So she moved to New York and began work as a maid. But she wasn’t satisfied. I may not be able to read or write, she thought, but isn’t there something I can do for God, perhaps something to help those still in slavery?

And God told her what she could do. She could become a travelling preacher, go and tell the world how slavery was wrong, that it wasn’t what God wanted. What? she must have thought – a black woman telling white people to change their way of life?

She made her decision. She chose not the easy thing but the hard thing. She would go. But she would take a new name – Sojourner Truth. A sojourner is someone who does not stay in one place for long, so that fitted, and Truth because Jesus said, “I am the truth”, and she’d be speaking for him.

Other people, both black and white, were trying to put an end to slavery too. Some told slaves: “Rise up against your masters!” Sojourner would have nothing to do with this. Violence was not Jesus’ way. She went instead to white people to reason with them, to try and change their attitudes.

Her message to a world that looked down on black people, especially black women, was: “Aren’t I equal to anyone of you in God’s eyes? So why do you go against God?”

She was a born teacher. When she spoke, in meeting halls or in the open air, people listened all right. She was very tall, taller than most men, and had a quick, lively mind and a great sense of humour. And how she knew the Bible!

Of course, many jeered at her, some even threatened her life, but she understood – they’d been brought up to look down on black people, so she could forgive them.

She continued travelling and speaking until she was in her eighties. She had seen many changes in that time. For example, President Abraham Lincoln had taken up the cause of black people and passed a law to ban slavery. This was wonderful but in some states slave owners defied the law. Freed slaves were taken captive and dragged to states where slavery was still practised, and their children were carried off to become unpaid factory workers.

So Sojourner went on fighting. She longed for her country to honour God and treat all people fairly. Black people, she argued, have worked hard to make America rich, they should have rights the same as anyone.

Sojourner died in 1883. Both black and white were proud to have known her, glad she had brought them closer together.

Slavery was eventually stopped altogether, but the battle for equal rights had a long way to go. In each generation there were those who pleaded for justice for all, perhaps the most famous being Martin Luther King. He was a black Baptist minister in Alabama, one of the southern states. He felt that God wanted him to do something for his fellow blacks, who were not allowed, for example, to sit on certain seats in buses or in restaurants, their children not allowed to go to certain schools. So in the 1950s and ‘60s he organised peaceful protests.

For his trouble, his house was dynamited and he was arrested and sent to prison seventeen times. But he kept on, pleading with white people for justice, pleading with black people not to let their anger boil over. In Washington in 1963, 200,000 people, black and white, came together to march through the city for equal rights, and to hear Martin speak. It was a great occasion.

He just longed for all human beings to be treated equally. But some people hated him just as they’d hated Sojourner Truth. And five years after he spoke to that crowd, Martin Luther King was murdered.

But he had accomplished so much. Like Sojourner, he had brought people of different races closer together, taught them to see they had an equal place in the heart of God.

Time of Reflection

Have you ever looked down on someone because they were different from you in some way? Perhaps in the way they looked or the way they spoke, or because they were younger than you, or because they were very old, or because they had less money? Jesus never looked down on anyone, whatever their race, or appearance, or age – he treated them equally. Do you?

Just take a moment to think about that.

Bible Bits

In the Bible it says:

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“…to be peaceful and friendly, and always…show a gentle attitude towards everyone.” (Titus 3:2)

Prayer

Help us, Lord, to treat everyone, whatever their race, whatever their age or appearance, as you did, with respect. And if we’re the one being ill-treated, help us not to be violent, but to tell someone and be ready to forgive. Amen

Variations on a Theme

The children could act out a series of stories from the Gospels showing how Jesus treated people equally – regardless of race, age, whatever, and how he did not meet violence with violence.

Eg. Attitude to the foreigner: Matthew 8:5-13

The child: Luke 9:46-48

The disfigured: Mark 1: 40-42

The bullies: Luke 22: 47-51

Or you could think more about slavery in the world today, especially the forced labour of children.

Quiz Questions

  1. What was Belle’s real first name?
  2. What did her parents think might happen to her?
  3. Why didn’t the master sell her?
  4. Later, why did she run away?
  5. Being a Christian changed her attitude – how?
  6. Why was she not satisfied as a maid?
  7. Why did she talk to white people and not black?
  8. Which president banned slavery?
  9. In which state was Martin Luther King a minister?
  10. What happened in Washington in 1963?
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