By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Twenty years after President Reagan grudgingly signed legislation that made Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, millions of Americans and most businesses still refuse to celebrate the day.
A survey in 2000 by BNA Inc., a Washington, D.C., business news publisher, revealed that less than one-quarter of U.S. businesses give their workers a day off with pay. Worse, the number that did give the day off with pay plunged from the year before. The number of companies that acknowledge King’s birthday pales in comparison to the next least-celebrated holiday, Presidents Day. Fifty percent of companies give their workers that day off.
The deep shame is that while most businesses refuse to commemorate the King holiday by closing, sponsoring events or simply acknowledging the day to their employees, they benefited as much if not more than any segment of American society from the 1960s civil rights battles. That struggle made diversity a watchword for business, expanded the purchasing power of Blacks, minorities and women, and made it easier for major firms to advertise and promote their products and services in minority communities.
But businesses and millions of Americans don’t ignore the King holiday solely out of greed, ignorance or racism. They ignore it because they’ve swallowed the terrible myth that King was solely a Black leader, that the civil rights movement was a movement by and for Blacks and that King’s holiday should be celebrated by Blacks only.
When King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, he staked out the moral high ground for modern-day civil rights struggles. This made it possible, even obligatory, for most white Americans to condemn racial segregation as immoral and indefensible. Their moral outrage didn’t stop with segregation. Vietnam War protesters publicly acknowledged King’s brave and outspoken opposition to the war and militarism, and credited him with giving a huge boost to the anti-war movement.
The leaders of the gay and women’s rights movements were inspired by King’s actions and borrowed heavily from the tactics of the civil rights movement. The venerable Caesar Chavez, who now has his own California holiday, often hailed King and other civil rights leaders for encouraging and providing aid to farmworker and labor-organizing battles.
The civil rights movement also impacted freedom struggles worldwide. It spurred students and workers in Asia, Africa and Latin America to oppose the military strongmen, dictators and demagogues in their countries. It inspired liberation priests in Latin America, student demonstrators in Europe and anti-apartheid activists in South Africa to struggle against injustice.
Sadly, King’s legacy has not just been ignored by many in power. During the furious battles over affirmative action in California and in other states, many conservatives twisted the few stray remarks King uttered on affirmative action to claim that he supported their views. They aren’t through distorting him. Black conservative Ward Connerly repeatedly invokes King’s name in his current fight to get an initiative on the California ballot to bar state agencies from collecting racial data.
In an even more perverse political irony, during the 1960s ultra-conservatives stoked the white backlash that King and the civil rights movement triggered, revived the moribund Republican Party in the South and transformed themselves into a dominant force in national politics.
President Bush benefited mightily from this conservative resurgence. He swept the electoral votes of the Southern states. Without them his Democratic presidential opponent, Al Gore, would have easily won the White House. Even Attorney General John Ashcroft, who drew intense fire from civil rights groups for his retrograde conservative views, claims that King is on his most-admired list. Former Senate Majority leader Trent Lott, who opposed the King holiday, now praises King as part of his mea culpa apology to Blacks for his public tout of segregation.
King’s moral vision and reach extended far beyond the questions of war, peace and racial injustice. He also saw that true democracy could never be realized without economic justice for the poor. He hammered on the need to end class divisions and poverty. His Poor Peoples March in 1968 was a flawed but sincere effort to bring the poor of all races together in that common fight for economic justice.
The civil rights movement increased civil liberties protections, expanded universal voting rights and produced a vast array of legal, social and educational programs that permanently transformed American society and enriched the lives of millions of Americans of all races and income groups. This social and political remake of America was the direct byproduct of the King-led civil rights movement.
Millions of Americans and most businesses will again ignore King’s holiday this year. But what can’t and must not be ignored is that the civil rights movement made America a stronger and more democratic society, not just for African Americans, but for all Americans. King will forever remain the eternal symbol of that change.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson (ehutchi344@ aol.com) a columnist and author of “The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).