You're never too young to start learning the lessons of history.
At the Walters Art Museum yesterday, dozens of parents, guardians and baby sitters ushered toddlers and carried babies into theatrical performances and other events built around what the museum called a "day of celebration, art and enjoyment" in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
No matter that many of the underlying issues that brought King to prominence almost a half-century ago were beyond the children's comprehension.
"They understand most of all that Dr. King was a nice person and that he wanted everyone to come together and be free," said Karen Waters, the founder of Karen's Fun House, a performing-arts program in West Baltimore that focuses on latchkey kids ages 5 to 11. "If you bring in a lot of the other stuff - the violence, the racism - they'll ask, 'Why are people so mean?' The water hoses - they find that confusing."
Waters said that when she explained seminal events such as the lunch counter sit-ins - which began in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960 - to her young charges, some of them cried. Still, several of the children were all set yesterday to perform in A Salute to African-American Heroes in the museum's Sculpture Court, a pageant that paid tribute to, among others, Ray Charles, Rosa Parks, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Harriet Tubman and Cab Calloway.
King was portrayed by Demetrius Lee, 9, who wore a snappy black suit for the occasion, with a yellow and gray tie. "I like to play him," Demetrius said. "It feels good."
Part of his training for the role, he said, involved watching a movie about King. Demetrius particularly remembered the civil rights leader's recounting that, as a child, he had two white friends whose mothers "didn't let them play with him" because of his race.
A fellow member of Karen's Fun House, Shannon Faulkner, 9, was set to play Parks, whose refusal to sit in the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 set off a black boycott of the city's buses and elevated King, then a virtually unknown clergyman, to national prominence.
But Shannon didn't seem fazed.
"We've learned a lot of things about people," she said. "We've talked about Martin Luther King and slavery and black history, and that you have to practice for your part."
King, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, was the subject of an hour-long film, Our Friend Martin, at the museum. A selection of his speeches was played throughout the day, and children were urged to paint "peace banners" and take them home.
"I brought her so that she understands her history and how far her people have come," said Rhonda Edwards, referring to her 9-year-old daughter, Tiffany, whose hand she held. "It's also important for her to get an education because people died for her to get an education."
Edwards said that, except for the attention paid to such matters during Black History Month each February, her daughter was not being taught the history of the civil rights movement in school. The two had just emerged from a performance of How Old Is a Hero? in the museum's Graham Auditorium. The hour-long, three-actor play by Smithsonian Discovery Theater encapsulated the early days of the civil rights movement, including the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., and 15-year- old Claudette Colvin's refusal two years earlier to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger, an act that preceded Parks' stand by nine months.
Conal Nealis, 7, came away from the performance with a lot to think about.
"It wasn't fair that the Negro people weren't allowed to go to the same schools as the white people," said Conal, a white boy whose closest school friend, Colin Wright, also 7, is black.
Conal's father, Tom Nealis, is in charge of fundraising at St. Frances Academy, a predominantly black high school founded in 1828 to "teach the children of slaves how to read," he said. The Nealis family - which includes Fiona, 3, Ronan, 5, and the children's mother, Bridget McMahon - opened up some stories about King on Sunday and read them with their neighbors in preparation for their trip yesterday to the museum.
"We wanted to do something to celebrate the holiday and to honor the day in particular," Nealis said.
Eric Clemons, a resident of Baltimore's Oakenshawe neighborhood, also brought his three children, 3-year-old twins Walter and Nora, and Daelia, 6. "They know Dr. King is someone important because his birthday follows Christmas and New Year's and their mama's birthday" on Jan. 16, Clemons said, smiling at his wife, Erin.
As the noise in the museum's playroom grew to ear-popping levels, Brenda Sheldon said King's teachings about equality and brotherhood are being passed to her son Evan, 4.
"He goes to school with lots of different kinds of kids," Sheldon said. "He knows that difference is fine and that it doesn't mean anything other than difference. That's what we do every day of our lives."
Arriving in the Walters' lobby and shaking off the outside cold, Larry and Saundra Marable removed coats and hats from their children, Adam, 4, and Samantha, 2, and said the history of civil rights was the reason they had ventured out yesterday from the warmth of their home in Bowie.
"The lifestyle my children have is because of the civil rights movement," said Larry Marable, who grew up in modest circumstances in Atlantic City, N.J. He said his professional career took off after he was accepted into a program established in the mid-1970s by Prudential Life Insurance that was designed to elevate blacks into middle management.
"You don't take for granted that you can sit at a lunch counter," his wife said. "It's because people fought for it."