The King holiday: After 20 years, do we get it?

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Another Martin Luther King holiday has come and gone. As a society, what do we want from a day like that? If the sound bites are to be believed, we want to reflect on our progress, and our need for progress, toward racial equality. We tend to measure that progress by comparing how things such as education, poverty, and economic opportunity are distributed among the races, and whether racial minorities seem to have a disproportionate share or shortage. The last time your publishers checked, racial minorities were getting a lot less than white people in the education and economic opportunity departments, and a lot more in the poverty department.

Now, as a society, what did we do on the holiday?

We closed many schools, taking a day of education away from many people. We closed many banks, slowing down commerce (not a problem for the well-to-do, potentially disastrous for those who are financially “on the edge”). We shut down government offices that provide emergency assistance and investigate discrimination. We shut down post offices, making communication (a key component of education and opportunity) more difficult. And, we gave the well-to-do another long weekend, their fourth in less than two months.

What were we thinking?

If people paid attention to the media on that day, they got to hear commentators extol King’s virtues; and, in the next breath, demonize the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee for desperately trying to warn Americans that confirming the latest Supreme Court nominee will probably create a court majority that views the U.S. Constitution in a way that will dismantle most of what King’s hard work established.

What were they thinking?

People got a chance to ruminate on the oft-heard sound bites of the “I have a dream” speech, on Martin Luther King himself, and on the civil rights movement. For too many of even the best-intentioned people, the sound bites have become the speech, the speech has become the man, and the man has become the movement. It’s a great package, but it’s a bit too handy to be true. While the “I have a dream” portion of the speech is stirring, King said a lot more that day. Here’s an example:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual….

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

The man was much more than the speech. He was more than an orator. He was a minister, an organizer, a protest leader, a diplomat. Decades before the phrase was popular, he “walked the walk” right into the path of an assassin’s bullet.

For many people, he personified the civil rights movement. But that movement was much, much more. It was a Minneapolis mayor’s speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. It was a girl named Brown in Kansas. It was a woman named Parks in Alabama. It was a medium called television, still in its infancy, bringing the horrors of racial hatred into the living rooms of middle America.

It’s enough to make people want to work ever harder to, as Hubert Humphrey said in 1948, “get out of the shadows of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”