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Before the Good Guys Were Liked: Dr. King’s Untold Stories

This is part three of a sponsored post series with Wells Fargo.

In my lifetime everyone has always referred to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a hero. He has, to my knowledge, always been revered, there’s always been a holiday honoring him, and there’s always been a monument dedicated to his legacy. When I got the whole story, however, I was shocked that I didn’t know all the untold stories.

By the time I got to college I learned about the FBI spying on him, his reported infidelities, and how much he was hated during his lifetime.

In case you don’t know about any of those things in my previous paragraph, feel free to watch the brilliant film SELMA by director Ava DuVernay that was released last month. Due to her vision and the way she directed it, you won’t be able to leave the theatre and forget that Dr. King was a watched man by the FBI.

In 2011, Gallup Poll did a survey looking at the popular opinion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the time when the marches and protests were taking place. At the time, Dr. King was considered radical for his ideas and his pushback on people he should have expected support from but didn’t get. In May of 1963 37% of those polled found him to be “unfavorable” and 25% of those polled found him to be “highly unfavorable”. Naturally, there’s been a shift in the public opinion about Dr. King with many hailing him as a Civil Rights “hero” with a national holiday and monument dedicated to him. 

Yet, what about the polls throughout the 1960s questioning his popularity? Were the marches and protests and speeches he made successful or did he hit popularity low? Are the stories we tell our children a fair representation or should we discuss the radical, disastrous parts as well?

Looking back on American history, it’s easy to see how the narratives of Black men and women have been shaped, but we’ve done an unfair job of showing the North as more ‘progressive’ than the South. While Selma became a famous march and his I Have a Dream became his most famous speech, Dr. King encountered plenty of wrath in his time.

Some of the untold history of Dr. King’s work rests on failed protests and counter-protests. Beginning in 1965, Dr. King began to focus on housing issues in Chicago, an issue that many found more unpalatable than simply riding an integrated bus. While marching through Marquette Park with other protestors about the unfair housing laws, King said this became the most ugly encounter with counter-protestors that he’d even seen. 


There was massive resistance from Whites in the North, thousands of whom came out to scream and hurl objects at the non-violent group that included Dr. King as they marched throughout the Southwest and Northwest sides of Chicago. The protests were to oppose discriminatory ordinances barring rental or purchasing property, something systemic racism has perpetuated for so long that the legacy of that cycle continues to be a struggle. 

About his time in Chicago, King said, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago. I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

While the Chicago Freedom Movement wasn’t as successful as the marches in Birmingham and Selma, they weren’t total failures. The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities came out of this movement, which put the focus on housing discrimination, something that long needed to be corrected as it was systemic policy.

Dr. King was vehemently disliked over his anti-war sentiments as well, but the prevailing thought at the time was that his work should be singular in nature and focus on singular issues. However, he was fighting for a variety of aspects of the marginalized lives of Blacks. Workers’ rights, unions, anti-war, housing discrimination, voting rights. These were complicated issues that were built into the layered system of discrimination that the Civil Rights fought and continues to fight.

One would think that his colleagues of the cloth would be supportive of the Reverend King, but many clergymen penned open letters to Dr. King criticizing his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They considered him an outside agitator who was a part of the “them” against their “us”. Though some ministers were affiliated with the SCLC, they still practiced xenophobic beliefs about his work. Responding to them in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail, Dr. King supplied them with not only a moral impetus for his appearance at protests, but he pushed back on their privileged status. 

The way we’ve created narratives to justify and shape the way we look at the legacy of people who worked for the fight for Civil Rights isn’t as clear-cut as it should be. These untold, or not-told-as-much, stories are still a part of our history. The radical thing to do would be for us to look at it directly and keep peeling apart the privileged systems that favor some and punish others. The radical thing to do would be to continue to fight, even as unpopular as that is, because it’s still the right thing to do.

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Wells Fargo and The Untold Stories Collection. You can find their story gallery here, and share your own story. Make sure to use the hashtag #MyUntold when sharing on social media, and tag me so I can see it!


I Gotchu

Last night, Mason came over and, since he has the impeccable timing of a 23-year-old-about-to-live-on-his-own, he knew exactly when we were cooking dinner so that he could cop a free meal out of us. It's awesome and bizarre how his timing works, but he also knew that I baked cookies over the weekend so he went searching for them. 

I'm so much better at hiding things in my own house now that they're older. 

I used to keep everything I didn't want them to see with all the cleaning supplies. They never seemed to look there. WHY WOULD THEY EVER NEED TO CLEAN?

He's still going to school but it's taken him longer than his sisters because he's worked full time as a Youth Group leader. He's wanted to go into the ministry but it's fascinating watching him figure out that ministry comes in many forms. Right now, he's learning to work with a younger group of kids in elementary and when he told me about that job I tried to give him some advice.

You know how uncomfortable it is to get advice from your mom, right? When you add to that the fact that I've worked in education for 2 decades you get quite a know-it-all. 

I'm nothing if not entirely self-reflective in my work. 

And humble. I got that in spades.

I teased him, "Why do you need my advice?"

His response shocked me. "Because I had a moment today when I turned into Kelly Wickham. Something came out of my mouth and I thought, hmmmm. I'm my mother."

Much of the advice I gave him was to forge relationships with the children and to make sure he knew their play time was really their serious work time. When it seems like they're just playing tetherball or 4-square outside, join in with them. That builds a trust on another level than when you're sitting next to them in a classroom. He mentioned a kid that drives other adults crazy but said he just got right in his face and knelt down on his level.

"You got knee-to-knee-eye-to-eye with him." I told him.

"What is that?" he asked.

I took longer to explain it to him.

"Just a term in education about connecting with kids but not making them look up to you for it. Sit down next to them. Kneel. Get all the way on the floor if you have to. With middle schoolers, I just do what they do. If they flop onto my bean bag to chat, I get down there, too. Whey they want to stare at the ceiling because they don't want to make eye contact, then I crawl on the floor and look up, too. Make sure you're always knee-to-knee, Mason."


Mason, celebrating his 23rd birthday. My son-in-law looks blurry, but it ended up being such a great picture of Mason that I love it.

My knee-to-knee takes on other forms as well. For the better part of a week I've been debating on talking to a student about something I've been noticing at lunchtime. Part of my supervision duty requires that I attend all 3 lunch shifts daily and, while it's a giant chunk of my day where I can't take phone calls or drop-ins from students needing to talk to me, it's where I do my best Margaret Mead anthropological work. In their natural habitat, kids are best viewed by a prowling administrator walking from table to table and checking in with them. I take notes in my head and learn which friendships are struggling, who is going out with whom, and which students might be on the verge of a breakthrough. Or, worse, a breakdown.

Lunch time supervision is my jam. It's how I connect with kids in an unstructured environment. When they see me visiting classrooms they're far more academic-based. The cafeteria is where that guard comes down.

I stand near the cashier and check their trays out when they pass by, commenting one every third one or so.

All your lunch is one color: brown. Get an apple or some broccoli or a salad, would ya?

Did you remember to get a fruit?

Oooohhhh, somebody likes tacos. GUESS WHO ELSE LIKES TACOS?

Aren't you getting milk? Or would you rather have a juice or water?

When they were passing by, I told one of them, henceforth known as Cool Kid, to come see me when he was done eating. He asked if he was in trouble and I made my You-Talking-Crazy face. "Nah, you're good. Just see me before you head outside."

He couldn't wait so when he was halfway done he made eye contact with me from his table and mouthed, "Now?" and I didn't want to torture him so I yanked my head towards the door and sat on the Ball Box (where I am Queen of the Basketballs/Footballs) to chat.

Cool Kid: You wanted to talk to me?

Me: Yes. You know how (name redacted) has been sitting at your table for lunch? Well, I was talking to his dad and (name redacted) is really excited about being able to sit there. Right now he's working on making friends and the other night he was saying his son couldn't stop talking about all his "new cool friends". He believes he's sitting at the Cool Kids table. He thinks you're all the best athletes and very smart, but it's hard for him to make friends.

Cool Kid: Ok. So?

Me: So, is it the Cool Kids table? Are you boys popular?

Cool Kid: (laughing) Well. Yeah.

Me: So I don't want you to mess this up. I want you to take this responsibility seriously and I want you to treat him well. There will be no laughing at him, but you may laugh with him. Can you read between the lines here?

I had to pause for a moment here with him because we got interrupted by a student looking for a cough drop. Since I was sitting down and couldn't see her coming, I listened to his body language say that I should crane my neck to see who was coming down the stairway. I listened to his facial language say, Stop. Pause. I know this is important but someone is here so please don't say this in front of her.

After I answered her question and she trotted off, he continued, not letting me speak first. I took it to mean that he knew where this was going and didn't need my overkill on it.

Cool Kid: I don't want to disappoint you or nothing, but I gotchu.

Me: (starting to tear up because he was getting this) You be nice to him, okay? You are a leader at that table and with your friends. This is a chance for you to show me your character. More importantly, it's a chance for you to show him what it means to be a kid like you.

Cool Kid: Yeah. I see what you're saying.

Me: Now, go back and sit down. Don't be telling nobody I cry. (Getting my thug cred back.)

Cool Kid: I gotchu.


How much more can we pour into children when we expect the best from them and how much return does that give? Adolescent-age kids are in desperate need of higher expectations with a dose of reality when they mess up. Even if children do make mistakes, this is where they want to make them and learn from them. A lot of my own Office Advice sounds like this:

You want to mess up here and learn from it. It's much harder when you're older. Old people are stubborn. You get to make mistakes in life, you know that?

I guess lunchtime supervision is my jam. Knee-to-knee is my jam. Letting kids be leaders and allowing them to be flawed and amazing people is my jam. 

And giving my son advice in writing like this is the luckiest jam of all. I hope you got something out of this, Mason. I gotchu.


My Untold Story: Kathryn Harris as Harriet Tubman

This is part two of a sponsored series with Wells Fargo.

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven!”  - Harriet Tubman

Kathryn Harris answers to another name entirely. It’s not her name nor any variation thereof, yet she will respond when people say it. The name is Harriet Tubman. 


As a master storyteller and Director of Library Services at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, Kathryn long ago decided that she wanted to ensure that other stories, sometimes from marginalized peoples, were told. It came about when an outreach program for cultural events contacted her about visiting a school in Springfield.  At the time, Kathryn was a member of the Sangamon County Historical Society. She joined in 1998 and went on a cemetery walk at Oakridge Cemetary to learn about historical figures in Central Illinois where she learned the story of Phoebe Floorville, wife of Willie. Willie Floorville was the barber of Abraham Lincoln and finding her gravestone set Kathryn on a path she didn’t expect.



"Harriet tubman" by From [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Naturally, that led to her dressing up as and speaking in character as she researched the life of Harriet. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world for a librarian to use her own resources and learn about the life of the woman who ran the Underground Railroad. 


Image of Kathryn Harris with Desmond Tutu courtesty of the Abraham Lincoln Presidntial Library and Museum

 She’s played her in schools and civic events all around the world, not just in Springfield, dozens of times each year for many years.


Image of Kathryn Harris courtesy of Lincoln & Logan Country Herald News

Kelly: Did you ever wonder how you got here? How you got to play Harriet as such an important part of American history?

Kathryn: Harriet’s taken to me to lots of places that I never would have been! Let’s see, I’ve visited Washington, DC and was a guest of the National Alliance for Faith & Justice. I can’t believe where I’ve gotten to visit because of Harriet. Because of her.

Image from a recent visit to the Ferguson Public Library

When talking about her portrayal of Harriet Tubman, Kathryn speaks of her in the present tense.

"They wanted $40,000 just to catch Moses!" Kathryn says, emphatically, jumping between herself and Harriet Tubman, known also as "Moses". 

She refers to her as living history and loves the work she does breathing life into this woman, one she emphatically calls her "shero". It’s not enough to read about history, she told me.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Kathryn, who, through interviewing, has become a cherished friend to me, is that she doesn’t see her life as spectacular. She doesn’t think she’s out of the ordinary or that she’s “much special”.

During our visits I constantly tried to convince her that her stories and Harriet’s stories are both vital to the progression of Black Future because they’re both Black History. Living and breathing and storytelling history.

Should you ever be honored to see her version of Harriet Tubman, make sure you tell her the same. You can see more #MyUntold stories here on a special channel just for their collection.

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Wells Fargo and their Untold Stories Collection.

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