Pop and Martin Luther King Jr.

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Today is Martin Luther King Day in America; a time to pause and reflect on the contributions of one of the greatest Civil Rights leaders of all time. I’m feeling remiss for not thinking about my deceased father today as well.

Most posts I write for 50 Shades of Aging revolve around taking care of my 91 year old mother. Mostly because she’s the one who’s still alive. (Thankfully – some really great writers also contribute to 50 Shades and share their experiences as well. It’d be pretty boring with just me and Mom...)

Although “Pop” never required my care (he had an excessively devoted wife) he deserves a major posthumous shout-out today. My father, Gregory C. Coffin, was a major Civil Rights leader, and a devoted follower of Martin Luther King Jr.

Growing up, I knew my parents as much as any other kid knows their parents –from a child’s perspective. Mom and Dad weren’t really people, but rather Mom and Dad. As far as I was concerned, the only life they had was the one they shared with their kids behind the doors of our own home. As typical as this was, I missed a lot of important detail about who my father was, and how he lived his life.  

Back in the 1960’s, Pop spent his days as an eager educator, focused on desegregating public schools and championing the rights of those without a voice. After graduating from Harvard, he got his Masters in Education from Boston University and his PhD from UConn. After many years and multiple moves, my father rose from school teacher to become the Superintendent of one of the largest and most progressive school districts in the country at the time; Evanston, IL, just outside of Chicago.

Pop was hugely instrumental in desegregating the Evanston schools, creating a system which ultimately became a model for other communities. Although he took an ego beating in the doing, and didn’t live long enough to see the full fruits of his labor, he would be proud of the way history now recognizes his efforts; Dr. Gregory C. Coffin is the subject and author of multiple books about black history, civil rights, integration, desegregation, race relations, women’s rights, and then later - computers in the classroom.

Not long ago, my mother received a call from my 30 year old nephew in Colorado. Somehow, through some research he was doing, he stumbled upon a draft of a letter that Martin Luther King Jr. had written to my father while he was superintendent of schools in Darien, CT.

The letter read as follows:

Dear Mr. Coffin,

I am grateful that you took the time and effort to forward the newspaper clippings to me. I am also appreciative of the copy of your proposal to desegregate the schools in Darien. You have my hopes and prayers that the program will be successfully executed and be a contributing factor in breaking down the walls which (sic) segregation and desegregation in the Darien community.

May you remain steadfast in your struggle to secure freedom and equality for all Americans.              M.L.K.

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The draft letter was written around 1964. My father would have been 38 years old... a time when his professional life and American history were exploding with civil rights activity. I remember going to multi-racial marches with my family, walking with candles singing We Shall Overcome. I also recall, (a memory tainted with fear), several years later in Evanston, a 12 foot cross being burned on our front lawn; our lily white neighbors secretly begging us to move.

These childhood memories are indicative of the only way I knew my father to exist in the world at the time - a champion of others’ rights.

When I was in my early 40’s, my father became a doting grandfather, and it was my turn to be the busy daughter with two kids, an ex-husband, a new husband and a job. It was my time to be all-consumed, with my parents hanging quietly in the background of my life.

Pop died in 2002 at 76 years old. He’d been retired for 18 years and in some ways, I barely knew him.  I knew him as an activist and a grandfather, but not necessarily as a father. And it’s probably fair to say, he didn’t know me either.

My frame of reference for adult parent/child relationships has morphed since my father’s death. I began helping my mother about six years ago, and am now her primary caretaker. Mom lives right next door so I see her almost every day. I bring her dinner and take her to (lots of) doctor appointments. I help buy her groceries and help her with household tasks.

But more importantly, I’ve gotten to really know my mother in the last six years. In addition to caretaking, I also spend quality time sitting with Mom and talking about her life... about my life... about her doll house... her politics... her fears... her hopes... her philosophies... I know Mom in ways that I never had the chance to develop with Pop. I will never look back and say to myself, I wish I’d known such and such about my mother.

So today, I’ll honor Martin Luther King Jr. AND my father, Gregory C. Coffin. I’d like to think they might be sharing space up there, talking about the important Civil Rights issues and goals they worked on – together. 

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Emily Gaffney