Americans honor the birthdays of three of its citizens with holidays named after them. George Washington and Christopher Columbus were the first two recipients, Martin Luther King the third.
It’s a day off work for government employees, and for workers in some other sectors such as banks. In America the date is fixed on a Monday closest to the actual birthday. Martin Luther King day falls on the third Monday of January. The edict was eventually enacted by all 50 States, although there were some who reluctantly gave up celebrating a more local hero on the day.
Miami celebrated under grey clouds this monday [January 15th 2011]. A visitor to the city might not have appreciated its significance. Traffic downtown was light. But the near deserted finance sector could have signified any non-working day.
King, and the “I have a dream” speech
I remember Martin Luther King, from a time when I was working as a research assistant at a New York medical college. That was in the 1960s. The civil rights movement seemed to an outsider like me to be lead by more militant characters. It was typified by the cool supporters of the Black Power movement held out leaflets from the street corners of Manhattan. Sometimes I would take a pamphlet. The activists seemed more concerned with getting their message across to “brothers rather than others” who mostly hurried by, occupying a different space on the sidewalks.
The controversial figure of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was also rarely out of the headlines. Powell was a firely politician and pastor who represented Harlem, in the United States House of Representatives for a staggering period from 1945 until his removal in disgrace in 1971. Although I did not know it at the time, Powell strongly opposed Martin Luther King’s non-violence policies.
But it was King’s voice which won through, both in a literal and metaphoric sense. His speech has become one of the most praised of all time for the power of its delivery and its impact. It is said to have encouraged President Kennedy to put more weight behind the Civil rights campaign (JFK was rather more ambivalent about his direct involvement than was his brother Bobby.)
King Day events were reported rather modestly, and outside the news headlines. In Atlanta, the symbolic focus was at MLK’s Ebenezer Baptist church close by his birth place. The messages from political leaders and members of his family picked up on the continued need for non-violence and reconciliation. The recent slayings at Tucson were picked up as a theme.
This echoed a recent speech by President Obama which had also called for greater efforts toward reconciliation. The tragedy had triggered mourning and a political storm of accusations that rhetoric had inflamed the popular mood and precipitated acts of violence.