The other day a friend of mine asked me how I planned to spend Martin Luther King Day. I was a bit taken aback at first; she was the last person I expected to make plans to honor a slain civil rights leader. As a young white woman, and as someone with few ties to the African-American community, I didn't think she'd give MLK Day much thought.
Turns out I was mostly right.
The next sentence out of her mouth was "Some friends and I are talking about having a big party Sunday night, since nobody has to work on Monday. Wanna come?"
Thirty-four years after he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. has become, for many of us, just a good excuse to sleep late. It's a doubly convenient holiday for white Americans.
Not only do we get a day off from school and work but we also get the moral consolation that we've given "them" a day of tribute. Secure in our majority position, we still feel like holidays are ours to give. Besides, for much of white America, MLK Day is a black holiday, just like Martin Luther King Jr. was a black leader.
To make matters worse, the Martin Luther King Jr. that we celebrate today is a kinder, gentler version of himself. When President Reagan ushered in the holiday, he introduced America to a cuddly King. The Martin Luther King Jr. we've created is more pacifist mouthpiece than radical leader; a teddy bear who spews inspirational (but never challenging) ideas when we decide to listen.
By honoring this more digestible leader we rob King of much of his message. We strip him of the radical ideology that led him and others to endure beatings and jail, bombings and death. Go back and read King's speeches. Better still, go to the National Civil Rights Museum and watch the footage. King's dreams were not just for black people to gain power but for all people to be guaranteed equal access.
Now, perhaps more so than any time since King's assassination, we should recognize how far we have to go. It's currently in vogue to wave flags and revel in our newly found national unity. But as a nation and as a city we are still debating equal access as though it were something, well, debatable. We haven't achieved unity, and the token observance of a holiday won't change that.
Politically, we're only slightly more progressive than when King was alive. Sure, African Americans are no longer barred from water fountains and bathrooms, but is that something to pat ourselves on the backs for? Hardly. We shouldn't get credit for doing what we're supposed to do -- especially when all other choices are morally indefensible.
In Memphis today, we still operate two racially divided governments and two racially divided school districts. Call it "city" and "county" if it helps you sleep at night (and promise each the same funding to ease your conscience), but when you boil it down to the facts it's still separate but equal.
Memphis should have performed some necessary and painful surgery years ago to solve these problems, but we elected instead to just slap Band-Aid after Band-Aid over the gaping wounds.
City-county consolidation is a great start, but it's long overdue and sure to face tough opposition. County (white) residents don't want to be consolidated with city (black) residents. A lot of it's racism, pure and simple. Memphis and Shelby County will continue to wrestle with the same problems -- failing schools, crime, and poverty -- so long as racist attitudes are accepted.
Thirty-four years ago Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Something is happening in Memphis. Something is happening in our world."
Let's become the city he saw from the mountaintop.
Rebekah Gleaves is a Flyer staff writer.