Martin Luther King Day 2012

By on January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King Day was first celebrated on January 20, 1986. A movement began in Congress in the late 70′s to establish a holiday honoring the civil rights leader, pushed mainly by Labor and African-American spokespersons. A bill to set a day was finally passed by Congress and signed into Law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. The vote had been overwhelming.

The concept was not without its detractors. Employers carped about adding another paid vacation day to their business operations. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) questioned whether the Rev. King was worthy of such an honor. He was not alone. King had been a controversial figure during his life time. J. Edgar Hoover worried he was giving aid and comfort to our enemies with his message of civil disobedience.  The FBI kept a detailed record of every peccadillo, real and imagined, attributed to him. There were frequent public dialogs about whether King was moving the Civil Rights movement “too fast.”

All this sounds ludicrous in retrospect, but it speaks of how quickly the times have changed since Rev. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. This horrible event galvanized the nation and shocked it it to its senses. President John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 had been a stunning blow to the nation who had come to regard assassination as a 19th century phenomenon– something long left behind in more primitive times.

The King event five years later was a one-two punch. Did Americans really shoot people just because they disagreed with them? Was this who we were becoming? Savages ready to kill those who opinions bothered us? The Bobby Kennedy assassination later that year was the coup de grace— had the whole country finally gone mad? It was a very sobering time to those who lived through it. I will never forget it.

When the King holiday became official, it was observed gently, usually with speeches and parades and reminders of his legacy. Many businesses did not give their employees a paid day off. If they did, it might be a traded off for another paid day of vacation. Observation was almost optional.

Then in 1994, legislation passed establishing Martin Luther King Day as national day of service. At the time I questioned the wisdom of this. It seemed like a triumph of the bottom line over message. After all King had not made his reputation advancing volunteerism and charitable service. He had fought for equality and diversity and equal access to the American Dream. King’s legacy was not interchangeable with Rotary International or Kiwanis or Sertoma, fine organizations as those groups might be. Celebrating multiculturalism and tolerance in America still needed advocacy. As anti-immigration sentiment grew after 2000, the need to recall Dr. King’s work seemed all the more urgent.

I have wondered frequently what  Martin Luther King Jr. himself would have said about this switch in his day’s observance?

This year as I watched our President and the first family going off to a site in the District of Columbia to give service to an organization in need, it struck me this year’s day of service was very appropriate indeed. People have been so focused on serving themselves and looking after their own interests in the past few years, that it is valuable to have a day when people are obliged to stop and think of someone else, particularly someone in need. The “I Got Mine, Screw You” attitude that has erupted in some quarters in 2011 is very unattractive.

I do not know if Dr. King would completely agree, but I think one day of altruism in our daily life, of stopping and thinking that we have a social contract with others, with our community, our country,  serves the man’s memory fairly well in this election year. But we should not forget his fundamental teaching of tolerance and mutual respect and equal access for Americans of all backgrounds to the promise of the American Dream. The need for that is still great.

Tom Godfrey


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