(Host) Commentator Willem Lange considers Martin Luther King Day as not a holiday, but a time to remember a major step in our growth as a nation.
(Lange) Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929 and assassinated on April 4, 1968. We celebrate his birthday each year on the third Monday in January. It’s not our most enthusiastically observed holiday. And it’s not hard to tell why. King and the movement he led turned society upside down in many parts of the country.
Even here in the Northeast, he challenged our professions of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Who can forget the black man in the business suit being stabbed by the staff of an American flag in the hands of a young white man in Boston? It’s never fun to have your principles’ feet held to the fire. King was speciously reviled as a Communist and a womanizer (the first charge clearly ridiculous and the second hardly unique among the leaders of the people). But finally even New Hampshire grudgingly acceded to recognizing his birthday.
It might have been coincidence that King, the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace, and Bull Connor met at that political crossroads almost forty years ago. But King was the nucleus upon which the unstable solution crystallized. And while many would disagree, the country is the richer for it.
Nonviolent protest has proven effective against power wielded by governments that profess humanitarian principles. (Sit-ins in Stalin’s Soviet Union were wisely never contemplated by even the most optimistic of Russian democrats.) The Montgomery bus boycott and King’s message are direct descendants of Henry Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience and the example of Mohandas Gandhi, who brought down the British raj in India by inspiring massive disruption of the government by passive, disobedient crowds.
It must have seemed bizarre and unnatural to young blacks, who had experienced tear gas, water cannons, police dogs, lynchings, and Jim Crow signs, to accept the mantra, “Love ’em no matter what they do to you! Don’t fight back!” But they held it together long enough to prevail.
My own experience with the lingering anger over King came some years ago during a visit with family in the Adirondacks. During the evening we played Trivial Pursuit, and one question was, “What holiday do we celebrate the third Monday of January?” At the answer, an uncle who’d had far too much beer, growled, “It’s a pretty sad day when the greatest nation in the world celebrates the birthday of a — supply your own epithet.
Our 9-year-old daughter had never heard such sentiments. “You can’t talk like that!” she cried. The uncle had never had a kid talk back to him that way, and repeated it, a little more vehemently. At this point Civil War threatened all over again, but this time between Yankees: I completely forgot King’s teachings and offered to discuss the subject outside. Then the women stepped in stopped it. That was the end of the party and the end of that relationship. I’ve wondered ever since at how close beneath the surface all that anger still lurks, and whether it will ever go away.
This is Willem Lange, up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I’ve gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.