I avoided writing about Martin Luther King Jr. Day yesterday, but I find myself unable to hold my tongue on the matter.
New Hampshire, I believe, holds the distinction of being the last state to formally recognize Dr. King by name. When the push first started, we chose to observe the same day as the federal holiday as “Civil Rights Day” — and, in a rare display of common sense, abolished an old holiday to keep things in balance. “Fast Day” was originally a day when all New Hampshirites fasted and prayed for the life of an ailing governor. Unlike the governor, though, the day survived and lasted a couple of hundred years.
Anyway, after enough pressure (both from within and without), New Hampshire passed a law changing it to “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day,” and all seemed content. (This was, I think, a better compromise than Virginia’s, which added Dr. King’s name to the day honoring Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. I’m sure he would have been honored to be listed alongside two defenders of slavery.)
But every year, it seems, the matter gets kicked around. And every year, I find myself reluctantly agreeing with those who resisted naming the holiday after Dr. King.
Considering that among those who are most vocal about the matter are the more vile and repulsive racists, that always gives me pause.
But, in principle, they do have a point on some of their calmer arguments.
As it stands now, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is unique on the federal register. It is the only holiday associated with a single, individual American. It’s been that way since Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday were rolled together into Presidents’ Day.
I’m not too keen on tying a single cause so tightly to a single individual. Dr. King’s accomplishments are the stuff of legend, and the nation owes him and his memory a tremendous debt of gratitude. But one recurring theme of his efforts was that his cause was bigger than him, that it did not start and end with him, and that he would not be content until the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution were enjoyed by all Americans.
The danger in tying a cause to an individual is that the fate of that cause becomes inextricably tied to that individual, and runs the risk of rising and falling with that individual. Witness Ross Perot’s Independent Party — when he self-destructed, he pretty much took that party down with him.
The cause of civil rights was far more important than Dr. King, and he knew it. On the eve of his assassination, he gave a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. And the conclusion of his speech was remarkably prescient:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He did not get there with the rest of us. and we are so much the poorer for it. But his death served a tremendous benefit to his cause, showing that one of the major differences between Christians and Muslims — Christian martyrs die for their beliefs, Muslim martyrs kill for theirs.
But I digress. Dr. King was a lightning rod for the movement, and a great many of his opponents attempted to discredit him in an effort to discredit his cause. This culminated in a most literal “shooting the messenger” moment that achieved exactly the opposite of its intent.
Even today, the bigots and swine still attempt to discredit Dr. King with all sorts of allegations and accusations.
The truth or falsehood of them are irrelevant. Dr. King has been dead for almost forty years, and is long past being able to defend himself — or caring. Indeed, he seemed utterly impervious to the attacks on his character in life; I sincerely doubt he gives much thought to the accusations of his detractors now.
But I don’t think he’d care for his current status as an icon of his movement. Dr. King was an ordained Reverend, and his Christian beliefs were a tremendous factor in his crusade. The Bible does not think much of idolatry, and that is not that unfair a term to describe his current status among some.
Practically speaking, I don’t think that removing Dr. King’s name from the national holiday will happen any day soon. And the longer it stands, the harder it would be to do. But I’d like to see the name changed to reflect New Hampshire’s language — to add “Civil Rights” to the official name.
I don’t think Dr. King would object to sharing the date with the cause that he devoted his life to — and for which he paid the ultimate price.