Monday we celebrate Martin Luther King Day for the 25th time. And for the 25th time we will seek to answer the question that has bedeviled this observation from the beginning: How shall we observe this day?
We know what to do with other holidays. On Christmas, we unwrap gifts and go to grandma's house. On Thanksgiving we eat and watch football. On Independence Day we barbecue and wait for the fireworks.
King Day, thus far, lacks a defining tradition. This is not to say people have not evolved ways of celebrating it. There are interfaith breakfasts, speeches, parades and recitals. But there is not, as of yet, that one or two things we do that emblematize this day.
A good deal of that failing likely owes to the relative newness of the holiday. It has not yet had time to find its traditions.
But it can also be argued that at least some of the failing owes to a certain vagueness of comprehension. Ask the average high school student to explain the significance of King's life and ideals, and brace for disappointment.
Marc de Lacoste, who teaches U.S. and world history at Hialeah High, says that while his advanced kids would probably know a little more about King, most students would be in the dark. ``They know generally about Martin Luther King, but beyond that, if you ask them any specific questions, even years of civil rights bills or what the civil rights years were even about, they would be totally lost.''
He says some kids are surprised at how relatively recent those years are. Some think it happened at the turn of the last century.
Julie Biancardi, assistant principal at Cooper City High, sees much the same thing. ``The kids today can't believe that this happened,'' she says. ``They cannot believe people ever had to go through this. `Why, why, how come, how come?'''
Not to pick on the kids. One suspects their elders would do but marginally better if asked to assess the significance of King. They might be aware that he used non-violent civil disobedience to effect social change, but the fullness of that change and the driving vision behind it would be another story.
Consider Glenn Beck last year, fulminating against those who criticized him for attempting to claim King's movement in the name of the conservatives who tormented King till the last day of his life. When Al Sharpton observed that issues of economic injustice loomed large in King's vision, Beck pitched a fit, accusing him of perverting and distorting King's dream.
He thereby proved that Sharpton had read what King had to say while he, Glenn Beck, had not.
It frustrates Lerone Bennett, Jr. The venerable historian, author of Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, says King lives on the top tier of American heroes with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. But the King holiday gets ``bogged down'' in soundbites of I Have A Dream, ``and gives no sense of the greatness of the man and the majesty of the man and the fundamental changes he demanded.''
For Bennett, King's last crusade, which he died trying to fulfill, is symbolic of his broader vision: The Poor People's Campaign was designed to move the struggle for equality beyond race to the common ground of class.
``He believed, and he said as much almost, that one demonstration after another will not solve this problem. You must have a consistent structural approach to deal with the structural problems. One of the major structural problems is the continued inequality ... between poor Americans and other Americans. His message to us -- and I hope somebody this January will hear it now, especially -- is that we need a Poor People's March. We need poor people to stop begging and start organizing. Black people, white people, Hispanic Americans, we need poor people to go to Washington'' he says, and demand ``a level playing field.''
Michael K. Honey, editor of All Labor Has Dignity, a collection of King's speeches on labor issues, notes that while he deplored communism for its totalitarian bent, King longed for some modifed form of socialism. ``King was really impacted when he went to get the Nobel Prize,'' says Honey, ``and he talked about how Norway and Sweden and Scandinavian countries didn't have homeless people or poor people on the streets. They were capitalist countries, but they also had this socialist democratic framework. He was that kind of socialist.''
Doubtless, that will come as a jarring surprise to some people (paging Glenn Beck) who have grown comfortable with an image of King that is static and safe, unthreatening of the status quo, frozen forever at the Lincoln Memorial saying, ``I have a dream.''
But the same King who said that once said this:
``I am now convinced that... the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely-discussed measure: the guaranteed income.''
And the same King who spoke of color of skin and content of character also said this:
``It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his own bootstraps. It is even worse to tell a man to lift himself up by his own bootstraps when somebody is standing on the boot.''
And the same King who declared he had been to the mountaintop also declared:
``If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in a war.''
The point being that King did not just fight for racial equality. He fought for labor rights. He fought against economic exploitation. He fought for fair housing. He fought for better schools. He fought against war.
The common denominator in all that he fought for was simply a demand that America do better by its most vulnerable: the poor, the racial minorities, the unhoused, the uneducated, the left out, left behind and forgotten, the ones the Bible calls ``the least of these.''
King, says Bennett, ``talked about a dream that has never existed in this country. George Washington didn't believe in that dream. Thomas Jefferson didn't believe in that dream. Abraham Lincoln didn't believe in that dream.''
But King did. So for those who share that belief, perhaps it is not all that hard to find a way to mark his day. Maybe it ought to be a day for commiting acts of faith, seeking some small way, some big way, to make a difference for the least of these. Why not do that on Martin Luther King Day?
And then, the next day, do it again.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.