CRUE Discussion Guide: MLK Day Reflection

Last week we celebrated Martin King Jr. Day. As a reminder of why this day is important, Beth Yohe offers us a reflection on who our heroes are, seen and unseen, and what it means to be a hero.

A couple of months ago, my daughter Staia and I were driving in the car, talking about superheroes. I can’t remember how the topic came up, but superheroes seem to be a popular topic of conversation at this age, at least in my experience with four year olds.

Before I tell this story, I should mention that Staia is a pretty practical and pragmatic four year old. For example, when we went to see the musical Shrek, at intermission she said “that isn’t really Shrek, it’s an actor in a costume.” (Although I know she really wanted the dragon to be real). And when I try to invoke a current favorite character to inspire desired behavior (as in, “I think Buzz Light Year really likes to eat all his dinner”), she will tell me “Mommy, Buzz Light Year isn’t real.”

So with that context, back to our conversation about superheroes: We’re discussing superheroes and their various abilities and which ones we would want (flying, super speed, etc.). Given the described aspects of Staia’s personality, you know I wasn’t surprised when she announced “I’ll never be a superhero and don’t have super powers.” However, I did take notice of how her declaration came out like a sigh, it sounded like resignation. She was disappointed such a thing wasn’t possible.

This moment continued to stay with me and as I’ve reflected I have come to the conclusion that my job as Mommy is to redefine the word “hero” so that she sees her potential, so that she believes she can be a hero- not the kind that can fly or shoot webs out of her hands, but a real, every day, flesh and blood, maybe nobody even knows your name but they feel the impact of your actions, kind of hero.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day passes, it is the perfect time to remember that there are lots of those kinds of every day heroes in our world. For me, Martin Luther King, Jr Day serves not only as an opportunity to remember and honor a great civil rights leader for his contributions and ultimate sacrifice, but also as an opportunity to recognize all of the people who were part of the Civil Rights Movement as well as those who continue that legacy today. I believe that King symbolizes the people of the movement, everyone who marched, who was jailed, who was beaten, who raised their voices instead of their fists and who sacrificed to fight oppression and discrimination.

The world knows Dr. King. And there’s a good chance many of us may recognize the names of some of the other leaders in the movement- John Lewis, Julian Bond, Medgar Evars, Diane Nash or Ralph Abernathy. But do we know Genevieve Houghton, Charles Person, Jim Zwerg or Hank Thomas? These last four names represent just a few of the over 200 people who became known as the Freedom Riders- fighting to integrate the buses and bus stations of interstate travel in the South.

And do we know Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin Eugene McCain, Joseph Alfred McNeil or David Leinail Rochmod? They were the four college students who sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and engaged in the first sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement.

Or do we know Sheyann Webb? In 1965, she was eight years old when she joined 600 marchers who set out across the Edmund Pettis Bridge to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Instead, they were stopped and beaten by state troopers. The day would become known as Bloody Sunday.

Whether we know their names or not, they are all heroes. They certainly didn’t have super powers- their bodies were not protected from the blows of injustice- but they did have the power of their courage and their conviction. No, they were not super human, but rather flesh and blood examples of our full human potential.

They are just a few of the “we do not know their name, but we feel their impact” kind of heroes.

They made the world we live in today possible.

So Staia will learn about them and learn to redefine the qualifications for “super hero.” And she will also know that heroes are not just in history. There are heroes all around us every day.

Heroes like the seven individuals I had the privilege to meet at the Colorado Martin Luther King Humanitarian Awards. These honorees are incredible individuals who have dedicated their lives to fighting injustice and addressing inequalities; individuals who choose to be heroes every day. (And just so you know their names, the award winners were Dr. Robbie Lee Powell Bean, Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Alisha Brown, Frank Lucero, Lena Lawson Gibbons, Alice Powell Langley, Coach Laurence Tarver and Loretta Richardson).

And so Staia also will learn that heroism is not an accident but a choice we make.

I am so fortunate to know many such “heroes by choice”- friends, colleagues and community members who choose to work towards something greater than themselves. They are people who understand that it is not enough to mark how far our country has come, but where we still have to go; people who, with great intention, continue to fight for civil rights and who work to end inequities.

No fancy cape or special tricks, but heroes nonetheless. And Staia will know them, too.

But yet I know that it’s not an easy job to redefine “hero” in a society where celebrity outshines contribution, where vitriol makes more noise than reason and where hatred seems to regularly take center stage. And so, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, I ask a simple question. I pose this question to myself and I share it with you.

How will you choose to be a hero today? tomorrow? And the next day?

You may not have your own comic book, but I promise we will feel the impact.


I would like to end this short Martin Luther King Day reflection by sharing some of Dr. King’s words- two quotations that speak to me in connection to this defining of heroes.

A time like this demands great leaders. Leaders whom the lust of office cannot kill; leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy; leaders who possess opinions and will; leaders who will not lie; leaders who can stand before a demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking. Tall leaders, sun-crowned, who live above the fog in public duty and in private thinking.

A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations, St. Louis Freedom Rally, April 10, 1957


On some positions, cowardice asks the question, 'Is it expedient?' And then expedience comes along and asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' Conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, March 31, 1968

Discussion Questions:

  1. Beth talks about the many “heroes by choice” she knows, who do you have in your life that fits this description for you? What do they do that causes you to see them this way? How do they influence you?
  2. What issues do you think Dr. King and other heroes of the Civil Rights Movement would be most concerned and active about today? How are you responding to these issues? Are you satisfied with your response?

Here are some resources about the Freedom Riders and some of the other Civil Rights heroes you may not have heard of:

Sheyann Webb—Teachers’ Domain

Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey by Ana Maria Spagna

Freedom Rides: Recollections by David Fankhauser

Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom by William H. Chafe

MLK and the Freedom Riders in Pictures—Life Magazine

Oh, Freedom! Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement With The People Who Made It Happen—Teaching Tolerance

“A Time for Sight:” The Debate over Color Blindness and Race-Consciousness in School Integration Policy– Anti-Defamation League


Beth Yohe is a lecturer for the foundational course Social Foundations and Cultural Diversity in Urban Education for the teacher licensure program at the University of Colorado Denver. Beth also is the Associate Director, Training and Curriculum Department of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Education Division and develops anti-bias training and curricular materials for the ADL’s A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute, a leading provider of anti-bias education and social justice training.

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