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Commentary: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, More Than a Standard Holiday


It shouldn’t be a surprise, but the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. has morphed into a great many things, including a day where stores promote their sales and holiday specials. From car salesmen to Old Navy, Macy’s and Bath & Body Works, the slain civil rights leader’s birthday is increasingly seen by businesses in the same way they see opportunities for sales in the Christmas or Memorial Day seasons.

After all, King’s birthday represents to many another day off, a long weekend to get in some additional shopping, relaxation or even a leisure trip out of town. The holiday joins the pantheon of American three-day weekends, with all the relaxation trappings that go along with those cherished occasions.

But if any day of national remembrance deserves more than the standard quest for sales and bargains, it’s that of Martin Luther King Jr., who was born Jan. 15, 1929, and would be 85 years old this week. Despite the fact that there has been a good deal of revisionism about the life of King and what he stood for  with right-wing conservatives reinventing him in a way that is breathtakingly distorting  there are some things that most Americans can agree upon in terms of how to honor him.

King was a distinctly different kind of American from those whom the country tends to honor. He was not a president or some national elected official. He was, in fact, a man whom the American government wiretapped and sought to discredit for taking a moral stand against a system of American apartheid in which the nation’s culture was deeply steeped.

The other thing on which most Americans can agree is that King’s position in the spotlight is one he never sought and came to quite reluctantly. He didn’t conceive of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ignited a flame that changed a nation. He was simply the man who, with great averseness, answered the call of his fellow ministers to be a public face on longstanding and aching problems: Segregation and inequality.

He was no saint, but rather a man of deep conviction who sacrificed enormously  including his own life  to seek to wrestle with the wrenching problems of the country he loved and highlighting its flaws. He was not always widely beloved. Many people now tend to forget, for example, how his principled opposition to the war in Vietnam earned him not only the irritation of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, but also the condemnation of the very African-American people whose concerns he championed.

And so, this birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. should be a moment for Americans of solemn reflection on where this nation is with regard to the needs of its most most marginalized people. But more than that, it should represent a call to action for Americans of every shade to find ways to address the challenges faced by Americans living at those margins.

We’re in a period of American history where some representatives in Congress balk callously at the very notion of extending unemployment benefits for a mere three months for people challenged by long-term joblessness. This is a sad era when too many legislatures, shockingly, are doing all they can to make it harder for some Americans to cast ballots and rescind the very gains King fought for.

This is a moment in America when there seems to be no enthusiasm at creating a national comprehensive plan to put people back to work. There is too much to consider in King’s legacy to relegate it to the realm of coupons and shopping extravaganzas.

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