New America Media, Earl Ofari Hutchinson
First it was Maine Governor Paul LePage telling the NAACP they could kiss a part of his anatomy that is well established as an expletive. The NAACP had the temerity to ask that LePage take part in NAACP sponsored activities on King ‘s national holiday Monday, January 17 in his state.
Then there was the announcement that some school districts in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina would use the King national holiday to have students attend school to make up for the days out due to the record shattering snowfalls that hit the region a week earlier.
Every year just like clockwork we can count on some politician, public figure, or public agency to come up with some excuse not to honor, or maybe the more accurate characterization is to dishonor, the King holiday. And judging from LePage’s odd ball retort to the NAACP, and the announcement from school officials in the three Southern states, this year is no exception. The disrespect of the King holiday twenty five years after the first King national holiday was officially observed may surprise some but it shouldn’t.
It took decades and hard battles to get the King holiday bill enacted. Along the way the King family and millions of King admirers and devotees had to watch and listen to conservatives, led by the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, heap every kind of slander, slur and abuse on King as a communist, agitator, unpatriotic, plagiarizer, and sexual philanderer.
Even today while polls show that a majority of Americans as individuals will celebrate, acknowledge or perform a service activity on the King holiday, only one out of three businesses acknowledge the King holiday by giving their employees some time off.
It still remains to be seen what effect the public appeal from President Obama urging Americans to make the King holiday a day for public service will have. Obama certainly owes a deep gratitude to King and the civil rights movement. It opened the political doors for him and a generation of other black political figures. But a presidential appeal may not be enough to crack the lingering resistance to a full and total acknowledgement of the world altering significance of King and the movement that he led. The reason for that is simple.
The King Holiday in far too many public and private circles is still regarded as a “black holiday” or more charitably a “civil rights issue.” That reinforces the fiction that King was solely a black leader, and that the civil rights movement was a movement only for blacks and that his holiday should be celebrated exclusively by blacks.
King’s “moral imperative” quickly stretched far past the limits of the civil rights movement. The leaders of the gay and women’s rights movements were motivated by King’s actions and borrowed heavily from the tactics of the civil rights movement. Cesar Chavez, who now has his own California holiday, repeatedly praised King and other civil rights leaders for encouraging and providing aid to the farm-worker and labor organizing battles.
The civil rights movement also had a major effect on other world struggles. It inspired activist priests in Latin America, students demonstrating against injustice in Europe and the oppressed in South Africa fighting against apartheid
King was the first major leader to condemn the Vietnam War and American militarism. He gave impetus and credibility to the antiwar movement and almost certainly would have been the first to hit the barricades to protest the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The amnesia or ignorance of some about King’s impassioned opposition to all wars was never more ludicrously displayed when Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson recently claimed that King would have cheered the wars. Talk about historical revisionism with a vengeance.
King’s moral vision and reach extended far beyond questions of war, peace and racial injustice. He saw that true democracy could never be realized without economic justice for the poor. He pounded away on the need to end class oppression and poverty. His Poor People’s March in 1968 was a flawed but sincere effort to bring the poor of all races together to seek economic justice.
The civil rights movement, increased civil liberties protections and expanded universal voting rights together produced a vast array of legal, social and educational programs that permanently transformed American society and enriched the lives of Americans of all races and income groups, not just blacks.
This was true when King hit the bricks to change America. It was true when an assassin’s bullet tore through his neck. It was true when every resistance that could be imagined was put up to prevent a King holiday from happening. But none of that worked. The King holiday is here and here to stay. And thankfully millions recognize the importance of it and will continue to recognize it.