Some wonder about message of MLK Day
By Mark Wineka
After 25 years as a national holiday, many Americans have automatically come to focus celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on his dramatic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
But the Rev. Dr. George Bernard Jackson and others say too much of the holiday’s emphasis has sometimes been placed on the speech and maybe even on King himself.
The slain civil rights leader’s overriding message, Jackson says, was that of a “beloved community” and making it better.
“I get engulfed in the day,” says Jackson, who is vice chairman of the N.C. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, a Thomasville pastor and resident of East Spencer. “I like to use the national holiday as a day for public service.”
The King holiday has become maybe the country’s most unique.
It’s the only national holiday to honor an individual U.S. citizen. It often is used as an educational tool to remind citizens of African-Americans’ past struggles for civil rights. It also serves as an annual springboard of discussion for how far the country has come in race relations — and how far it still has to go.
But there’s concern, too, in the black community that the King holiday is one-day window dressing after which most Americans return to business as usual.
“It’s patronizing — that’s a good word,” says Deedee Wright, a Salisbury resident and longtime civil rights activist.
Jackson says the national holiday for King is important, “but not important enough yet” and not what was envisioned when President Reagan signed it into law.
“Our goal and dream was for this to become a national holiday embraced by the nation,” Jackson says. “It hasn’t happened yet, because in many quarters, it is seen only as a holiday for African-Americans. That’s the tragic side.
“The positive side is that more and more cities are planning events to commemorate the national holiday and making it part of their calendars. It’s not where it should be.”
Dr. Ada Fisher, a former Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education member, past congressional candidate and current Republican National committeewoman, says she thinks King would be disappointed, “as I am, about how the holiday and efforts in his honor have played out.”
“It’s too much about the man and not enough about enacting the things he articulated,” she adds.
Fisher says King was an intriguing figure who she met once at her father’s church when he spoke there as the civil rights movements was unfurling.
“Like my father and many blacks, he was a Republican who believed in us being up and doing something,” Fisher says, “so I’m not sure how he would view this holiday.
“I personally would have loved to see the holiday in honor of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, for that was a more important undertaking in my mind, given that Republicans had passed the first Civil Rights Act in 1876, I think.”
Communities recognize the King holiday differently. Though federal employees first observed the national holiday in 1986, it took much longer for states and cities to embrace it, including North Carolina and towns in Rowan County.
North Carolina first made the King holiday a paid day off in 1988; the city of Salisbury, 1999; and Rowan County, 2002. Now all municipalities in Rowan observe the holiday.
Today and in years past, the week leading up to the King holiday in Salisbury typically has included art, essay and speech contests; visiting speakers, candlelight vigils; unity breakfasts at black churches; and programs at the local colleges and the Hefner VA Medical Center.
The bigger community events have been the annual King Humanitarian Awards, held every Sunday before the holiday at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and the King Parade, held in downtown Salisbury on the Monday holiday.
The parade has featured drill teams, beauty queens, floats, dignitaries and the Livingstone College Band. For the first time last year, it ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue — the former Boundary Street, which city officials renamed in King’s honor.
Donald “Duck” Sturdivant says it has troubled him for years that high school bands have not participated in the parade. “I find this inexcusable, especially for the leaders of the Rowan County school system to allow this to continue to go on year after year and not be affected by it,” Sturdivant says.
Salisbury Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy, the lone African-American on the council, also questions the high school bands’ lack of participation.
“We feel that is something we need to change,” Kennedy says.
Salisbury’s first King holiday parade was held in 1989 on what would have been the slain civil rights leader’s 60th birthday.
In some of its earliest years, the holiday and its parade sparked organized protests the day before from small contingents of the Ku Klux Klan.
Monday’s parade will be just one of the activities in Salisbury, starting with the 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast at the Hurley Family YMCA.
It will be followed by a memorial service at the Oak Grove Freedmen’s Cemetery, the parade and festivities at the Civic Center from noon to 4:30 p.m.
“I do know here, it is very, very important,” Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz says of the King holiday, “and, frankly, I’m proud of how it has grown and expanded from where it was when it started here.”
Kluttz likes to see the numbers and diversity of the people who increasingly have become involved in activities such as the annual breakfast, which typically draws around 500.
Kluttz says the city’s efforts at inclusion and diversity haven’t stopped with one-day-a-year observations. But she credits the holiday itself for encouraging citizens to reflect on what more needs to be done in improving race relations.
“To me, it’s extremely important,” says Kluttz, who holds “Spirit Luncheons” throughout the year. “The foundation of a successful community has to be good race relations. It’s so important for people to be together.”
But many African-Americans fear the message of the King holiday in Salisbury and cities across the country is forgotten the next day.
“We will have breakfast on the 17th, and each will go to his separate corners and come out fighting,” Fisher says.
Fifty years ago, Deedee Wright was a high school-age member of the “Greenville (S.C.) Eight,” who were arrested a couple of times for refusing to leave the city’s whites-only public library.
Later, she participated in the efforts to integrate Greenville’s parks, five-and-dime stores and churches. She would be arrested and jailed for marching on her state’s capital.
Wright says it’s important to recognize King who was “so forward thinking” and sacrificed his life in trying to bring Americans together.
The spirit in which the law establishing the King holiday was enacted was a good one, Wright says. But she worries that its intent hasn’t been fulfilled.
“I would like to see more of a coming together of the different races and cultures,” Wright says. “In the world of supposed-to-bes, I would like to see that throughout the year.”
Every January the Salisbury community comes together at the King humanitarian awards and the King breakfast, Wright says, but afterwards the participants go home and “nothing else is done.”
She notes, for example, the racial makeup among city and county employees and contends the equality King fought for has not come to fruition.
Wright met King in the 1960s and became acquainted with his widow, Coretta Scott King, and their children as a student at Clark College in Atlanta.
“I feel very honored that this country felt that the work he did deserved a time set aside to honor it,” she says.
On the King holiday, Wright says she personally doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary other than to think about the sacrifices people such as King, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King made.
“I use it as a time to reflect and give thanks that this man was on the planet and contributed so much,” she says.
Thomasina Paige, retired director of continuing education at Livingstone College, says she has lived other places where the King holiday is “really gigantic.”
She appreciates what Salisbury has done in connection to the holiday, but thinks it could be even bigger.
“I just hope it keeps its sense of seriousness,” Paige adds of the holiday, “and there is always something new and fabulous to talk about. …
“I’m definitely feeling better that it is not going to die.”
Paige likes to be involved in the holiday and its events. “I will celebrate Dr. King until I die,” she promises.
Kennedy, the longtime city councilman, says he hopes the King celebration will be even bigger 25 years from now and continues to teach children King’s contributions.
“I just think it’s an education every year,” he says. “The Human Relations Council has done an excellent job of keeping this in the forefront.”
The Rev. Dr. Jackson is the founding pastor and chief executive officer of Citadel of Faith Christian Fellowship Inc. of Thomasville. He also is founder and chairman of the Martin Luther King Social Action Committee.
He spends much of his King holiday volunteering at a regional health fair in Thomasville. It allows people with inadequate insurance to be seen by health-care professionals.
The value of service offered — checkups, diagnosis and treatment — equates to $350 a person.
“That’s what the beloved community is supposed to look like,” Jackson says. “It’s not a place of sentimental love but a place of opportunity, fair share, support, understanding and fellowship.”
Jackson says the King holiday shows the world, among other things, how America celebrates underdogs and leaders who gave their all to a cause.
“We’re a better nation than we were in 1968 (at King’s assassination),” he says. “We’ve made great strides. He would be proud of our nation, as well as disappointed in some areas.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.
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