Another Martin Luther King Day has passed and with it came the usual short-sided, empty rhetoric that has unfortunately plagued this holiday. My problem with this holiday is that people focus too much on MLK the person and not what he dedicated his life to: social justice. People elevate MLK and turn him into an almost god-like character. While I think he was an admirable person, whose fortitude and intelligence we can all envy, by putting all of the emphasis on him it diminishes the fact the civil rights movement didn’t begin or end with MLK. Another important thing to remember is that there were many other prominent leaders during his time who were just as vital to the success of the movement as he was, yet those people have faded as time goes on. One example is Bayard Rustin, the man who, among many other things, organized the 1963 “March on Washington” which gave MLK a national/worldwide audience to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Even after Kings death Bayard Rustin continued to make strides in towards civil rights. Unfortunately, it seems a bit ironic, but I don’t think the Civil Rights Movement was immune from discrimination. It’s likely that one of the reasons Rustin isn’t remembered as well as King is the fact that he was openly gay. And even though he was arguably just as eloquent as MLK, those who held the power in the movement during this time probably didn’t want a gay man being the face of their struggle, so they went for people like King instead; the more traditional pastor/reverend types with wives and children. There is also a “too long to name” list of female civil rights leaders who never got the attention they deserve (maybe this will be for another post).
Despite my criticisms of MLK Day, I’m certainly not advocating that we stop having the holiday. I understand that it means a lot to have a national holiday in remembrance of a black person. That sends a huge message and I think that reason alone is reason enough to continue the holiday. I just think we need to reconsider how we treat this day. Maybe it would be better if we used it more as a vehicle/opportunity to reflect on what needs to be done rather than as a pat on the back for work that is unfinished. As I heard one person say the other day “it should be a day ON rather than a day OFF.”
What direction do you think we should take MLK Day in?
What other civil rights leaders inspire you?