King for a Day

That you are reading this column days after the reflection upon, celebration of and guilt tripping over Martin Luther King Day is precisely the point. Just because a day's been set aside doesn't me

That you are reading this column days after the reflection upon, celebration of and guilt tripping over Martin Luther King Day is precisely the point.

Just because a day's been set aside doesn't mean it's inappropriate to mull — on any other day of the year — the things we think we're honoring and highlighting on the national holiday.

See, MLK Day is now as much a concept as it is the result of guilt-free progress. It's a lot like Black History Month. To get society's attention, we've snagged and dragged a day.

We figure that if we stop mail delivery and garbage pickup, give working people the option to stay home and make parking meters free we're doing the right things. In doing so, MLK Day has become self-congratulatory: Hey, look at me! Dr. King took a bullet so I could stay home and watch soap operas!

I don't think so. Really, Dr. King took that bullet so we could be free.

And freedom means making better choices as reasonable and sane people and leaving a wide berth for folks to exist who aren't hitching a ride on anybody's bandwagon.

Every year people try to climb inside the psyche of King. We attach all these values and dreamlike virtues of perfection, warmth and tree-hugging peace to a man few of us actually knew personally.

That's a major American flaw — the idealization and elevation of public figures to the point of flawless heroism for the validation of our individual selves.

I remember when Stevie Wonder, Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others, pushed to make King's birthday a nationally recognized holiday. It soon became so, but there was widespread resistance — remember Arizona? — and MLK Day supporters browbeat anyone who wasn't strutting down the MLK Day Soul Train line.

And a lot of black folks still castigate one another for not being righteous and black with a capitol B on MLK Day. If you're not marching, praying or singing "We Shall Overcome," many say, you're not getting into the Black section of heaven when you die.

Further, there's always the annual media-led reconsideration of King: Who would he be today? What causes would he be backing?

It all seems almost passe, when really we should be considering who we are as members of the society that murdered him and who blaspheme his name by continually dipping our oars in the racial divide and by consistently displaying across-the-board intolerance.

Consider the irony that the village of Evendale picked King's birthday as the day to officially put Officer Stephen Roach on its payroll. Consider also that a very vocal group of black folks rightfully has protested Roach's hiring.

It's King in black and white. It's both shoes of democracy dropping simultaneously.

I remember countless third Mondays in January as a pouting staff member behind the reference desk of the Main Public Library's Literature Department. I assumed library heads to be ass-backward. I equated working on MLK Day an oxymoron, like being free but being allowed only weekend passes off the plantation.

Time and maturity taught me I wouldn't even be working in a public position in a library if not for King and all the others. Besides, the purpose of a public library is the free offering and dissemination of information — a right King certainly would uphold.

At the risk of sounding self-serving, I am proud I now work for bosses — yes, white men — who have the common sense to halt business on MLK Day, the very day I sit at my desk writing this alone in an empty and quiet office. From windows near my desk I see the Eighth Street side of the Public Library with its illuminated windows. Patrons peruse videotapes in the Films and Recordings Department.

It's comfortable to be able to choose whether or not to work on this day. But that's not exactly the point.

The point is: Who are we now that King's not looking, and why is it we pick his birthday to act like we care what he'd think? Truth is, we should by now be living out the best of whom we assume King to be.

Take turns being King for a day. And don't wait for his birthday.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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