The Angry Czeck was enrolled in junior high school when the concept of Martin Luther King Day was finally given serious consideration by Congress. The idea created a great deal of conversation among my classmates.
At the time, I hadn’t given MLK Day much thought. We are a nation of days. Columbus Day. Lincoln’s Birthday. Earth Day. Secretary’s Day. Pirate Day. Adding King to the calendar seemed appropriate and overdue, and if it arrived with a possible day off from school, then I’d take it.
It was to my surprise to learn that there were some who weren’t inclined to take it at all.
Placing King on the same pedestal as Washington and Lincoln proved threatening to some of my classmates, and for reasons that were never made clear. The prevailing wisdom of the camp was that if Martin Luther King, Jr. was to be honored with a day, then so should General Robert E. Lee.
Chew on that for a second.
One man united a divided nation through peaceful and inspirational means. The other was a traitor.
One fought to elevate African Americans. The other fought to keep them working for free.
Yet this was a real argument. One that, at times, was delivered passionately as though it were rooted in common sense. “If they can have their day,” said one classmate, “then we should have our day.”
It was as if Columbus Day – they day in which we honor the arrival of honky* to the New Word – wasn’t enough.
The small but fervently vocal contingent of my classmates weren’t the only ones who didn’t wish to see King have his day. President Ronald Reagan only reluctantly reversed his threat to veto the measure. Senator John McCain cited King’s opposition to Vietnam as his reason to oppose the day, and Senator Jesse Helms agreed, adding that King wasn’t an important enough figure in American history.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 when South Carolina finally made MLK Day a paid holiday for government employees. Before then, employees were given a choice between celebrating MLK Day or celebrating one of three Confederate Hero holidays – one, of course, being the birthday of notorious traitor Robert E. Lee.
Imagine if your employer gave you a choice between taking off the Fourth of July and Guy Fawks Day.
That’s a lousy comparison. The only reason one has to celebrate the birth of Robert E. Lee is to insult Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Unless you have a passion for antiquated military strategy and a soft spot for traitors, there is little reason to note the birth of Lee.
The day after MLK Day 2009, our nation welcomes its first black president. In an ill-advised effort to re-rally the troops, the Republican National Committee chairman called Barack Obama “The Magic Negro.” Ironically, Obama might be.
In a recent poll, 69% of African Americans say that King’s dream has been realized. An estimated 2 million people of all races will ascend on Washington for his inauguration. In the wake of a crippling financial crises and a morally soul-crushing war, we will turn to a black man for wisdom and guidance.
On January 20th, we all have our Day.
* I can say “honky” because I’m white.