- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the official kickoff of Black History Month season, in which a quarter of the nation's most maligned minority is bombarded by all manner of events, documentaries and introspections.

It's as if blacks don't exist or make any worthy contributions throughout the rest of the year in today's multicultural society, of which King so eloquently dreamed.

As usual, this week I was asked my opinion about the evolution of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, an idea that my friends, my children and I marched for along Pennsylvania Avenue one very cold, snowy January day long ago.

Specifically, I was asked to comment on the commercialization of the King holiday.

"Hey, what do you expect? This is America," I said with a shrug.

This is a materialistic culture, in which opportunistic entrepreneurs exhibit no qualms in capitalizing on the patriotism that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks by filling store shelves and catalog pages with all manner of red-white-and-blue paraphernalia. Just the other day, I heard a sick story of a man who was selling rubble from the World Trade Center on his Web site.

So, I'm not surprised that King's memory, like so many other commemorations, has been reduced to a sale at Wal-Mart for the consumer-crazed.

What was more heartening was the overwhelming evidence that a great number of people in the Washington area still value King's mission and message to make a difference in the lives of others by calling for a day on, rather than a day off, to honor his legacy.

Greater D.C. Cares is to be commended for the volunteer efforts it coordinated, including the cleanup of the blighted Langston Terrace apartment complex and the painting of Eastern High School.

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up," King said.

King, the Dreamer, was the supreme integrationist, who believed in a truly colorblind society, as evidenced in his often-quoted 1963 March on Washington speech.

But all too often in this new millennium, the closest most blacks and whites come to true integration, ironically, in on the mass-transit system or a sports stadium. But we all seem to be too content to call these necessary mixing bowls progress.

Go to any church on Sunday morning and tell me how much walking together as brothers and sisters do you see?

As written in "The Words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," selected by his widow, Coretta Scott King, the Dreamer said, "Like life, racial understanding is not something that we find, but something we must create. And so the ability of the Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found readymade; it must be created by the fact of contact."

We pay great lip service to these words today. How many of us actually live them?

It doesn't matter how many laws are passed and ultimately rescinded and the legal battles fought, race relations in this country will not improve until their are major culture changes in ourselves.

In his many remarks during the holiday weekend, President Bush said that thanks to the civil rights martyr, bigotry no longer existed in America. Maybe not in his privileged world. However, most underprivileged and disadvantaged blacks and other minorities would beg to differ.

Yes, we can look to black faces in places we never dreamed imaginable when King made that famous speech in 1963. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, immediately come to mind. But there are countless more blacks and minorities being left behind.

If you don't read anything else this week, pick up a copy of Newsweek magazine, which touts "the New Black Power." The provocative features are drawn primarily from Ellis Cose's latest book, "The Envy of the World: On Being A Black Man in America."

The premise is that new black leadership does not have one face, like that of King's, and is not monolithic, as evidenced by the inroads blacks have made into all arenas of America society, including the corporate boardroom.

However, it is a long stretch to contend that all is well when you read further and realize that the stories speak to the success of only three black men who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The first one did not achieve that status until 1999. It was the District's own Franklin Raines, who heads the Fannie Mae Corp.

No black women make the cut. And, let us not forget that there is not a single black face male or female in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Cose offers as analogy the idea that in his grandfather's America, a black man had to climb into the boxing ring and fight society with both hands tied behind his back. Today's black man has had one hand freed with which to fight and he must use it wisely. Some progress.

While it is true that we are witnessing "falling racial barriers," as one Newsweek article asserts, "some [black leaders] will still be preoccupied with equality."

This is as it should be because we have yet to witness King's dream become a reality.

* Adrienne T. Washington's e-mail address is atwashin@aol.com.

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