Young Gloria Johnson didn’t want to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance. She didn’t want to say the school prayer either. This would have been an act of ordinary teenage rebellion except for the fact that Gloria was black, living in the American South, and a promising student with a path to college when few young black girls were afforded such an opportunity.
Naturally, her mother was worried. Where was this defiance coming from? What would this cost her daughter? Did she even know what she was doing? But instead of assuming–or shutting it down–her mother decided to ask. As David Halberstam details in his wonderful book, The Children, she asked,
“How seriously do you feel about this?”
“Very seriously.” Gloria replied. “I couldn’t believe in it more.”
“Are you prepared to give up college for a couple of years in order to earn the tuition money in case you don’t get a scholarship?” her mother asked.
When Gloria replied in the affirmative, her mother told her she would back her up all the way.
Imagine how difficult that must have been. All she wanted was for her daughter to have a better life than she had. She herself had to put up with so much that she didn’t believe in, follow so many customs and practices just to survive in a racist world, and now her daughter was risking it all over some protest that she probably hadn’t even thought through fully?!
Yet what did she do? She put those doubts aside and backed up her daughter. Actually she did more than that. She went to the school principal and got the man to see that fighting her daughter on this subject would be a costly (and probably embarrassing) fight for him. It was better to just leave it alone, she convinced the man.
The fight did cost Gloria quite a bit–she was shunned, and snubbed for awards at school. But with her mom’s backing, she rode it out, made it to college and, ultimately, helped usher in the fall of segregation as a pioneer of the sit-in movements.
Stories like this are why we have to back our kids up, why we can’t crush their rebellions or protests. We want to encourage our kids to question. We want them to stand on principle. We want them to know that people are with them. We want them to believe in themselves.
In fact, a better future depends on it.