Today is the federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.
For me, growing up as a white kid in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest in the 1960’s, Dr. King’s legacy would seem to have a minimum impact; after all, what he was fighting for didn’t affect me directly in any way. But my parents always taught me that anyone oppressed in our society was wrong, and that in some way it did affect me. This became much more apparent as I grew up and saw how the nation treated its black citizens; those grainy images on TV and in the paper of water-hoses turned on the Freedom Marchers in Alabama showed me how much hatred could be turned on people who were simply asking for their due in a country that promised it to them. And when I came out as a gay man, I became much more aware of it when I applied the same standards to society in their treatment of gays and lesbians.
Perhaps the greatest impression that Dr. King had on me was his unswerving dedication to non-violence in his pursuit of civil rights. He withstood taunts, provocations, and rank invasions of his privacy and his life at the hands of racists, hate-mongers, and the federal government, yet he never raised a hand in anger against anyone. He deplored the idea of an eye for an eye, and he knew that responding in kind would only set back the cause. I was also impressed that his spirituality and faith were his armor and his shield, not his weapon, and he never tried to force his religion on anyone else. The supreme irony was that he died at the hands of violence, much like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi.
It’s a karmic moment that we celebrate and honor the birthday of Dr. King on the same day we celebrate the second inaugural of the nation’s first African-American president. And yet, the campaign to replace him was colored, so to speak, with racial issues, including overt appeals on the part of some candidates to the old fears about “us” vs. “them,” and sometimes invoking the name of Dr. King as an ironic twist. His admonition about judging us by the content of our character is still lacking in a lot of people who know that racism is a specter in this nation and are willing to use it and exploit it.
There’s a question in the minds of a lot of people of how to celebrate a federal holiday for a civil rights leader. Isn’t there supposed to be a ritual or a ceremony we’re supposed to perform to mark the occasion? Today’s ceremony on the Capitol steps is one way. But how do you signify in one day or in one action what Dr. King stood for, lived for, and died for? For me, it’s having the memories of what it used to be like and seeing what it has become for all of us that don’t take our civil rights for granted, which should be all of us, and being both grateful that we have come as far as we have and humbled to know how much further we still have to go.