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 would make be plans to honor a slain civil rights leader. Not due to any real deficit in her character, rather as a young, white professional, woman with few ties to the African-American community I didn't expect her to have given 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?"
A few days later another friend (also white) told me that she was planning a champagne brunch for that Monday. So I started thinking about the holiday, and about how "holiday" has become the most appropriate word for it.
Thirty-four years after he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become, for much of white America anyway, just a good excuse to sleep late. And can you really blame us? What do we know about MLK anyway?
Preacher, civil rights leader, killed in Memphis, Mountaintop, I Have a Dream, the march on Washington, Selma, Bull Connor, and the favorite bulletin board image for elementary school teachers across the nation during Black History Month. That's about it.
It wasn't until I got to college and read David Halberstam's book, The Children
, that I first learned about how much of the civil rights movement took place in my hometown of Nashville. Sure, I knew that King was killed in Memphis but nobody bothered to tell me that a). a group called the Freedom Riders existed, and b). it got it's start in Nashville.
By the time I graduated from high school I could read Latin and speak Spanish. I could recognize and attribute every major work of art from cave paintings to modern sculpture. I had read and could recite many of the great works of literature. I knew all about cell structure and could do some math (not really my strong point, there.) But never once during my otherwise excellent public school education did a single teacher bother to mention the sit-ins, the march in Nashville, the training in non-violence, or the impressive number of present day leaders who cut their teeth during the civil rights movement.
The same is true for Dr. King. I had to read and be familiar with his two most famous speeches but nobody bothered to tell me why he was giving those speeches. I was taught that he had been shot in Memphis, but my text didn't say why he was in Memphis in the first place. I can't speak for all products of Tennessee's public schools, but among the Gen X and Y'ers I hang with - most of us haven't a clue. So MLK Day this year, like the last few years, will likely just be a holiday that white teenagers and young adults spend sleeping late and getting high.
It's a convenient holiday for us. One that allows us both a day off from school and work and the moral consolation that we've given "them" a day. To brutally paraphrase Austin Powers, we've thrown them a friggin' bone. Because for much of white America, MLK Day is a black holiday, just like Martin Luther King, Jr. was a black leader. It's the same logic that led city planners nationwide to place Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in the ghettos, where white people aren't likely to drive on it.
Before you get all defensive, think about it. Politically we're only inches 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. It's time we stop being proud of ourselves for taking the low road. We get no credit for doing what we're supposed to do - especially when all other choices are morally indefensible.
In Memphis today, we still operate a white school district and a black school district. Call it "city" and "county" if it helps you sleep at night (and promise each the same funding to ease your consciences), but it's still separate but equal when you boil it down to the bare facts.
Why are we still debating this? Are equal rights and equal access still debatable theories?
Where Memphis should have performed some necessary and painful surgery years ago to solve these problems, we elected instead to just slap band-aid after band-aid over the gushing wounds. Guess what guys, the wounds are still gushing.
City and county consolidation is great start, but a long overdue one that should face no resistance now though it will. County (white) residents don't want to be combined with city (black) residents. It's time to call a spade a spade.
But back to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. When President Reagan ushered in the holiday, he introduced America to a "new and improved, kinder and gentler," King. This one was more mouthpiece than radical leader, a cuddly and faithless teddy bear to spew inspirational (but never challenging) ideas when we decide to pull the string on his back.
We, as white Americans, can use this holiday to console ourselves with our token efforts. "We've (so generously, I might sarcastically add) given "them" MLK Day and Black History Month. "They've" got BET and the NAACP. Oprah has a TV show, and Colin Powell and Condi Rice have cabinet positions. They're not slaves, they can vote and (in theory anyway) hold office. What more do they want? some whites seem to be saying.
And in so thinking we once again miss the essence of Dr. King. Go back and read the "I Have a Dream" speech. Better still, go to the National Civil Rights Museum and watch the footage of the speech. King's dreams were not for black people to gain power - they were for equal access to all non-whites.
Right now, and perhaps moreso than anytime since King's assassination, we should realize this. It's very en vogue to waive flags and revel in our new found national unity. We relish the thought of becoming an even greatest-er generation.
But when we as a city and a nation are still debating equal access we've hardly achieved unity and the token observance of a holiday won't change that.