MLK Day 2012

January 13, 2012

Nurses march in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Photo by David Shankbone.

I had the good fortune of living for 12 wonderful years in Arizona. There are many good people there, and scenery is unparalleled in its variety and beauty. Discerning citizens agreed, however, that leaving the state for a visit elsewhere was one of the (many) downsides. It was embarrassing. People would invariably ask about felonies committed by elected Arizona officials that would make a Chicago mayor blush. They would ask about boneheaded actions of these officials, like refusing Federal health-care dollars on the principle that it was socialism or refusing to implement the results of public referendums. And of course they would ask about Arizona’s refusal to adopt the Martin Luther King holiday.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of the King holiday, but the first effective push for a paid holiday commemorating Dr. King came from labor unions as a part of collective bargaining agreements. Later Representative John Conyers introduced legislation to make King’s birthday a Federal holiday. The road to acceptance of the King holiday was rocky in many places, but none more so than in Arizona, the only state where the holiday was established by public referendum. Lawmakers punted the issue to the voters, citing concerns about “cost,” effectively hiding their racism behind an anti-labor stance. Labor unions responded by making the issue costly indeed, particularly when Pro football players successfully lobbied to change the venue for the 1990 Super Bowl, which had been slated for Arizona. Following a second referendum, Arizona celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1993 as a state and federal holiday.

If the commemoration had not been so bitterly fought for, I probably would find myself disliking the holiday altogether, because it seems to me that the further we go in celebrating the man, the further we retreat from his vision. King fought with the African-American people who found themselves at or near the bottom of the have-nots, and at the same time saw beyond this to the evils of having classes of disenfranchised people at all. Ending poverty became an obsession with him, and he said “I’m as concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty” (July 4, 1965, Atlanta). He said “Our only hope today lies in our….declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism” (April 4, 1967, New York).

Today the income gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% is the largest since the 1920s. The US military now has the power to detain American citizens indefinitely without trial. Alabama has joined Arizona in a law harassing immigrants for documentation papers. And speaking of documentation, new voting laws disenfranchise the poorest voters, many of whom are African- or Mexican-American, by requiring papers that are difficult for the lowest income people to acquire. All in one year. It’s an anti-Dream trifecta.

I understand there’s a popular Broadway play right now about King, and his place as one of the great men in American history remains assured. Nothing wrong with that. Yet there’s something going on here that rubs me the wrong way. How can you exalt a person’s life and at the same time ignore everything they stood for? That’s what we do for one day, every January.