Today’s canonized Martin Luther King was no saint. He was merely a man who even today reminds us of saintly ideals. He was not a god either. He was a plain man with a lofty message, reiterating the holy tenets of human interaction presented to the world by spiritual guides through the ages.
We must be careful as we commemorate his life during the myriad birthday celebrations that we do not idolize this martyr without implementing his humanitarian message. He would not want such misguided memorials.
Listening to the remembrances throughout the weekend, however, I could not help but wonder whether we continue to miss the point and purpose of having a national holiday to honor this civil rights icon.
King challenged the psyche of this nation. But, lest we forget, at the time of his death, he was perhaps one of the most unpopular men in America — even to some blacks, who feared white reprisals.
Those of us who took the day off from work and pulled our children out of school to march down Pennsylvania Avenue and on the Mall to the rallying cry of “We want a holiday, Martin Luther King Day” did not do so in hopes of getting another day off to sleep in, go shopping or even sing hollow praises about his life’s work.
Our hope was that this holiday would be a national day of soul-searching that every year might prompt a renewed call for collective and individual action to eradicate injustice and inhumanity. And, we wanted to ensure that the memory of this black man, who best symbolized the struggle for civil rights in this developing nation, would not be lost.
Indeed, it is commendable that some folks do make the King holiday “a day on, not a day off.” Many have rolled up their sleeves to volunteer for community projects, as President Bush urged yesterday in the needy library of Cardozo Senior High School in the District.
Activists who marched in anti-war rallies, some against the atrocities in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, in front of the Sudanese Embassy here yesterday were doing so in the spirit of King’s often-overlooked admonitions against the Vietnam War.
Man’s inhumanity to man is not just color-coded, as it was in this country when King made his famous anti-segregation “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Even so, the American dream of racial equality and economic opportunity has yet to be realized. There is much work to be done on the political, legal, educational and social fronts by all for all.
In this materialistic era when so many seek idolization and celebrity simply for self-aggrandizement and the bling, King’s legacy should remind us of the virtues of self-discipline and self-sacrifice for the common good.
Witness the nasty name-calling of today’s so-called public figures, celebrated more for the size of their bank accounts than their largess.
It was disheartening to read an America Online “Black Voices” poll in which many picked performers and media moguls — such as Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, Halle Berry, Diddy, Jay-Z and Russell Simmons — as the people who best embodied the fulfillment of King’s dream. Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat who is a virtual newcomer on the civil rights scene, rated 28 percent to Miss Winfrey’s 44 percent.
Excuse me, King did not die so we could live in congested suburbs, drive luxury cars, wear designer sneakers and spew vile obscenities. And he certainly didn’t value fleeting fame as the marker to indicate that we had reached the Promised Land.
Nothing against economic advancement for individuals, but what happened to the honorable pursuit of working toward advancement of the poor or vulnerable masses? We need another dream. In fact, we need to stop dreaming and start acting.
King’s altruistic legacy teaches us that one man or one woman, working in concert with like-minded public activists and servants, can make life-altering differences for many.
“King wasn’t just about African-American progress, he was about human progress,” said Tom Brown, head of Training Ground Inc., during a King tribute in Anacostia yesterday. The televised program honored ordinary men and women who have demonstrated long-term commitment to improving their communities.
Although it is no longer lawful in this country to discriminate against anyone based on race, religion, sex, age or disabilities, intractable inequities persist through more subtle and covert practices and prejudices that are even harder to detect and root out.
Were he alive today, no doubt King would shake his head at skinheads as well as the pathetic state of urban education. But he also would question what we are doing to ourselves. Many of the ills we face as a nation, regardless of the institutional “isms,” flow from a basic loss of love and respect for self as well as others.
Surely, Martin Luther King was just a man with the innate potential and promise every other man and woman possesses. He, however, put the challenging principles he preached into practice and at great cost.