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Commentary

The King Holiday Isn't Just for Blacks

January 21, 2002|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (1998, Middle Passage Press). E-mail: ehutchi344 @aol.com.

The Board of Commissioners of North Carolina's Davidson County briefly was the center of national attention recently when its members reversed themselves and narrowly voted to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. The commissioners claimed that they previously did not celebrate the holiday because they could not afford to give county workers another day off.

They may have snubbed the King holiday for decades because of parsimony, or maybe just plain racism, but they were hardly alone in ignoring King.

When President Reagan in 1983 grudgingly signed the law that made King's birthday a national holiday, civil rights leaders hoped that all Americans would permanently honor King's accomplishments.

It was wishful thinking. Millions of Americans and most businesses still refuse to celebrate the day. Surveys show that a dismally small number of businesses give their workers a day off with pay, and that number has shrunk each year.

Yet the King holiday is not shunned solely out of cost, greed, ignorance or racism. It is ignored because of the fiction that King was solely a black leader, that the civil rights movement was a movement only for blacks and that his holiday should be celebrated exclusively by blacks.

When King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, he staked out the moral high ground for the modern-day civil rights movement. He made it possible, even obligatory, for most white Americans to condemn racial segregation as immoral and legally indefensible.

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 protest leader to condemn the Vietnam War and American militarism. He gave impetus and credibility to the antiwar movement. Even today, opponents of President Bush's Afghan bombing campaign quickly latched on to King's speeches on the Vietnam War. They claim that if King were alive, he would vigorously denounce the bombing and Bush's anti-terrorist policies.

King almost certainly would have spoken out against the bombing, but he would not have rationalized or justified terrorist acts, as some have, as a legitimate response to U.S. policy by aggrieved Muslims.

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. The millions of Americans who shun the King holiday would do well to remember that.

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