Dr. Martin Luther King

Dr. King’s Wisdom Touched Us All

I never met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. even though I grew up in Atlanta in the 1950’s and 60’s.  To be honest, I didn’t truly appreciate what a great man he was until after he was gone.  A few days later some classmates and I decided to join thousands of others as we marched behind the mule-drawn wagon that carried his body down the streets of Peachtree to the cemetery.

Just shy of my eighteenth birthday the experience opened my eyes to a lot of things my liberal, yet sheltered, upbringing on the mostly white side of Atlanta never could.  Arm and arm we had walked, black and white, singing the songs of the civil rights movement with strangers united by a man’s dream “that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”  We were already being transformed by his vision for America.

Three years later I volunteered to run the waterfront at summer camp inspired by his dream.  Called Camping Unlimited, it had been founded by my father and uncle, as an experiment in group living where children of all races, religions, and incomes could live together for two weeks in harmony in the mountains of North Carolina.  The program was supported by many forward-thinking southerners, including Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, and Mrs. Coretta Scott King who sent three of her four children to camp: Bunny, a vivacious seven-year-old (now Rev. Bernice King), Martin Luther King III, the serious older brother of Dexter King, the playful younger brother who mesmerized his cabin-mates, as well as a couple of us counselors who, while making our rounds after lights-out, paused by the screened windows of his cabin to hear his oratorical gifts at work, the rhythm and cadence so similar to his legendary father one could almost believe he was channeling a spirit if it were not for the content which was clearly eight-year-old camper talk.

When the Washington Post announced, they were coming to camp to do a story on what we were doing I got called to the phone to speak to one of the camper’s mothers who had been told of the upcoming visit.  When I learned that the caller was Mrs. King, it was all I could do to stammer, “Yes, mam” when she explained to me that although she appreciated what we were doing, she wanted us to carry out her wishes to protect her children from the media until they were adults.  “Yes, mam.”

Not only did we keep The Post away from the King children, we also honored her late husband’s dream in another way: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”  Actually, we tried not to judge any of the kids at camp at all.  Nor did we need to as given a healthy, engaging environment kids from all kinds of backgrounds tend to thrive.

Dr. and Mrs. King influenced me subtly in other ways.  When, as a young psychologist, I had the idea to develop the first video-based parenting education program I realized that people would compare it to what they saw on TV.  So the quality would have to be high.  This was in 1983 when most of the programs were based around white families.  So, the three families we used to demonstrate parenting styles and skills would normally have been white.  Except that there was no way that I was going to have to even imagine explaining that to Mrs. King or her then grown children.  I knew better, so I did better.  In later programs, we added Hispanic and Asian families, and one Native American boy, as well.

I also think that Dr. King’s words about being judged on the content of one’s character, not race, had an impact on my writing. While parenting and parent education is often about behavior, and sometimes about attitudes and feeling, our programs have also emphasized the underlying foundation upon which those things are built: Character.  That’s why we emphasize parenting in a way that builds responsibility, mutual respect, cooperation, self-esteem, and most of all, courage.  To say that Dr. King’s life exemplified these traits would be an understatement. Great leadership requires one to talk the talk AND walk the walk.  I may have walked far behind that old mule-drawn wagon over fifty years ago, but I’m pretty sure he helped set me on the right path.


Active Parenting Publishers founder and president Michael H. Popkin, Ph.D. has been providing research-based education programs with an emphasis on nonviolent discipline, mutual respect, and open communication for 40 years. He is widely known for his expertise in the field of parent education and has appeared on over 100 TV programs, including CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show.


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