Op-Ed: Honoring MLK’s vision and the power of words
Washington state’s poet laureate laments the fevered rhetoric of those who would turn our country into a walled white citadel governed by plutocratic rulers. He reminds himself that disagreeing with those in power — clearly, precisely — is a wonderful right that our greatest leaders celebrated and used for good. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his last speech, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
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Some knew Martin Luther King Jr. personally, others admired him from afar. All were inspired by him. Here, civil rights activists reflect on King.
Lessons from fictionalizing King
CHARLES JOHNSON is the Pollock Professor of English at the University of Washington and a winner in 1998 of a prestigious "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. His novel, "Middle Passage," won the National Book Award for 1990 and his short fiction is much anthologized, including on the Internet.
An accomplished screenwriter, book reviewer, and comic artist, Johnson has wrote a novel called "Dreamer," centering on events in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Before the novel was published in the spring of 1998, he discussed some of what he learned about King, and what he discovered about himself — and society — in the process.
Searching for the hidden Martin Luther King Jr.
I’d like to share with you some of my own questions about the novel I’m writing in hopes that it might shed some light on what I think is the process of writing creative historical fiction.
The first question to ask is, why a book about Martin Luther King Jr.? We have many libraries of documentation and historical material on this man. And by writing about someone so many of us remember, a writer takes on a tremendous risk because the subject’s friends and relatives are still alive and will certainly have something to say about any book concerning King.
He is someone who we think we know. He was the nation’s preacher and our most prominent moral philosopher, although he is only now being examined as an ethical philosopher. His photograph is on display in elementary and secondary schools all across America; and it’s difficult to visit a major American city and not find a street or a public building named after him. Most of our states honor the national holiday established in his name.
But despite the overwhelming presence of this man in our lives, he is strangely absent. Even though I grew up in the 1960s, and even though I remember the day he was killed in 1968, I realized a few years ago that I really didn’t know this man, I realized that, although I invoke his name often, I knew absolutely nothing about his intellectual development. I knew the end result of his political thinking but nothing about the steps that led him there.
I knew, of course, that he was a preacher. But I did not know, for example, his favorite passages in the Bible, or in what ways he agreed or disagreed with the religious thinkers he studied, people like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich; I discovered I didn’t even know what novels and motion-pictures he enjoyed. I did not know until recently how deeply racial politics was in his blood, that — to give you but one example — he imbibed resistance to injustice nearly every night at the dinner table, where King Sr. discussed politics with his family.
I did not know his father counseled Martin against feelings of class superiority, or that he did manual labor during the Depression, and from his childhood was unable to make his peace with capitalism.
And this was only the beginning of my ignorance about King. I realized I didn’t know his personal habits, his likes and dislikes, his idiosyncrasies, his deepest feelings of shame and triumph, his obsessions and compulsions.
For example, what did he like to drink? (Apparently, on one occasion it was orange juice and vodka.) How did he shave when he got up in the morning? (From what I have read, Martin’s skin was too sensitive for a razor, as my own skin is, and he shaved with a smelly powder that many black men today still use.) Given the lack of my specific knowledge about King, I wondered if there was any way I could claim to understand him, or his position at the time of his death, or what he means to us today.
I came to see that if I really intended to probe deeper into King’s vision and values, I would also be compelled to probe into a by-gone period of black American cultural history — one that my father, who turned 70 recently, understands very well, but one which I only understand in a second-hand way, through people like my father and mother and their friends from South Carolina and Georgia because their world was fast slipping away by the early 1960s when I came of age.
Finding the meaning — for ourselves
In 1998 we have canonized King. He is both the creator and creature of a moment in history. He is the American symbol for the struggle against segregation, and the ideal of integration wears his face. But I think it’s clear that the private man over time has become a cultural object difficult to grasp in its individuality, in its humanness, and in the minutiae of its daily life, and this is ironic because these are the very foundations from which the public life arises.
The question is whether the entire man can be recovered in a work of fiction. I sometimes wonder if this is even possible when we seem to have such difficulty understanding even the lives of those people closest to us. Perhaps it is more important, then, to capture, if possible, the eidos (or essence) of his life.
What intrigues me about King is the same thing that engages the imagination of philosophers who find that our explanations all too often obscure the very subjects we are trying to understand. As writers, I think we are obliged not so much to always add new layers of interpretation onto what we know as we are to strip away as best we can the official interpretations that prevent us from undergoing a fresh experience with our subject.
This obviously cannot be an abstract or academic enterprise. It is crucial in any historical novel to experience the world as your subject experienced it.
In this book, I want to know the comparisons and connections that King drew when he gave his sermons; I want to know the compositional logic of the way he used language, and I want to know as well all the sources behind his rhetoric, sources such as the sermons of J. Wallace Hamilton, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Harold Bosley, and those of King’s own grandfather.
I say this because what is at stake in the Martin Luther King story — and in the story of the Civil Rights Movement — are not only questions about American race relations but also deeper questions, older questions about the nature of moral action, about what it means to be human, about cultural identity.
When I look at King, when I think of the portrait of him that my parents had in our house in Evanston, when I consider that his sacrifices and those of thousands of others in the civil rights movement made it possible for me to attend college, I realize that I was a child of integration. It was an ideal I took for granted all throughout high school and college.
Yet it was replaced in me by black cultural nationalism before I fully had the chance to subject the black American goal of integration to philosophical examination. What that means is that I have not been living an examined life. And I don’t believe I will ever live a fully examined life until I return to those last years of Martin’s life and take up the problems and passions that concerned him on the day he was cut down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
As with all philosophical questions, what is at stake is the very practical matter of how I will live the remainder of my life, and what I honestly feel I can teach my children about the social world, and about what is good and what is evil.
About the novel
This novel, “Dreamer,” looks at King’s life in the years between 1966 and 1968 when he brought the Freedom Movement to the Chicago area.
I’m interested in the King who came away from that campaign less than satisfied with his success in Chicago, the King who was the target of 50 assassination threats, who had a $30,000 bounty on his head, who lamented the death of Malcolm X, despaired over the growing racial polarization in America, and who saw young black power activists like Stokely Carmichael making deeper in-roads into urban black America than he could, though King kept expanding his agenda for realizing the “beloved community” by taking on the war in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson, and threw himself into organizing a massive poor people’s march on the nation’s capitol.
I want to know the King who walked across this minefield for 13 years and toward the end said to his long-time friend and ally Bayard Rustin, “Bayard, I sometimes wonder where I can go from here … What can I do now?” And last of all, I want to know — from the inside — the King who believed in the interrelatedness of all things and the “inescapable network of mutuality” that binds all people in “a single garment of destiny.”
But although the goal I have with Dreamer is to deliver details about Martin, which are apparently unknown to the generation born after 1970, King himself is not the protagonist of this novel. That role belongs to a character who is King’s double, a black man who looks enough like him to be his twin, but who has in 1966 led a very different life from King’s in a housing project, Altgeld Gardens, on the southside, which is where my wife grew up.
I think some people who are nostalgic about the ‘60s often forget that the level of violence was so great at that time that the government was considering what to do in the event of civil war — specifically, race war. And the ‘60s was also a time of theatre and television culture. Partly for these reasons, the man recruited to be King’s double will learn, like an actor, how to stand in for Martin Luther King Jr. He will spend months preparing for the role.
At first, he simply has the job of being on hand when Martin gives a speech so that his presence, his physical similarity to King, can confuse potential assassins.
And slowly, as he learns how to “stay in character” as King, then to imaginatively extend King’s character, his ideas, and the logic of his life, it will become increasingly hard for those around him to distinguish the imposter from the model, even for the double himself. The realization of Martin right down to his smallest tics and social gestures will be so complete by April of 1968 that when the fateful gunshot is fired from the high-powered rifle we shall not know — nor will our narrator — which man was killed in Memphis.
However, one man does live on in Dreamer. And the question that King asked Rustin, “Where can I go from here?” can be pursued if not on the pages of recent history then in the theater of a novel that will test and probe the possibilities of this life as it is projected beyond the 1960s and into our own time.
There is a line in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, that will serve as the epigraph for the novel. “Here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and see what becomes of his dream.” It is my hope that a work of fiction framed in this creative fashion might give one answer to that question.
His work is far from over: Lawyer spreads message of racial reconciliation
By Sally Macdonald, Seattle Times religion writer
This story originally ran in The Seattle Times Nov. 9, 1996.
When Rosa Parks needed a lawyer to tell an Alabama judge why she should be able to sit wherever she wanted on a city bus, Fred Gray was there.
He was there, too, when Parks’ friends, meeting in someone’s living room later that evening, chose the new preacher in town, Martin Luther King Jr., to lead them to the next level of freedom.
And later, when African-American schoolchildren needed lawyers and soldiers to help them attend school with white children, Gray was there.
Over the past four decades, Gray, an attorney with deep roots in Montgomery, Ala., was there, usually behind the scenes, arguing for racial justice in dozens of famous and crucial civil-rights cases, claiming for African Americans the right to sit in the same bus seats, eat at the same lunch counters, study in the same classrooms, live in the same neighborhoods, work in the same jobs and enjoy the same legal protections as whites.
The work of Gray and others in the movement is far from over, says Milton Jones, senior minister of Shoreline’s Northwest Church of Christ.
Jones has invited Gray to Seattle next Sunday, Nov. 17, to preach as part of a series of sermons he’s titled “Racial Reconciliation,” aimed at getting blacks and whites into the same churches to worship together. The church also will sponsor speaking appearances by Gray at the University of Washington on Friday and at Sharples Alternative High School next Saturday.
“Wasn’t it Martin Luther King who said 11 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America?” Jones asks. “All these years and nothing’s changed. The churches are still as segregated as they ever were.”
Civil rights is more than a political issue, Jones says. “It’s a religious and spiritual issue. Government should be involved in civil rights, but the church should be involved, too.”
The Bible deals with reconciliation many times, Jones says. Stories about relationships between Jews and Samaritans reflect centuries of prejudice and racial and religious hatred on the part of both groups.
Christians rarely hear such blunt interpretations from the pulpit, Jones says, and that’s too bad.
“Jesus pitched a tent among us,” Jones says. “That’s a story of reconciliation. That’s the way we have to reconcile with each other. We have to pitch our tents with each other, to intentionally enter each other’s world to do good. If we just wait for it to happen, it won’t.”
Gray, now 65, didn’t wait for racial reconciliation to happen in Alabama.
He recounts in his book “Bus Ride to Justice” (Black Belt Press, 1995; $25), how, as a young man denied admission to the University of Alabama’s then-segregated law school, he vowed to “destroy everything segregated that I could find.”
The vow became a drumbeat in the background of his life, providing cadence as he marched first against the daily indignities — like having to move to the back of the bus even if all the empty seats were at the front — and then against the deeply entrenched race-based oppression that permeated Alabama’s legal system.
Gray was first a friend of Parks and then her attorney. He had had lunch with her earlier that afternoon in 1955 when she climbed wearily aboard the bus, sat down and then refused to give up her seat to a white man when the driver ordered her to.
The night of Parks’ arrest, Gray says, he met with friends to discuss a strategy for boycotting the buses. They’d been looking for a spark to help them ignite their movement and Parks’ arrest was it. Through the boycott, they hoped to send an unmistakable message to the white community: We’re fed up with prejudice, injustice and segregated public transit.
At that meeting, someone mentioned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might lead the boycott.
King, Gray remembers, “was fresh, a newcomer, young, articulate, knowledgeable, highly educated, and had not identified himself with any community activities other than his church.”
Gray became King’s first civil-rights attorney. The boycott they started that night lasted 381 days and spawned a 40-year movement that has taken on racial discrimination wherever it appeared — in the courts, restaurants, schools and universities, neighborhoods, professional associations, parks and jails.
“I had many disagreements with my clients, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, in my efforts to keep them on a sound legal track,” Gray remembers in his autobiography. “There were times when they would consult other attorneys because they did not agree with my advice. It seems as if each time they failed to heed my advice, either one of the two or some other person very important in the movement would be arrested or end up in jail.”
Abernathy, who was King’s right-hand man, once joked to Gray, “Fred, you keep me out of jail and I will keep you out of hell,” and Gray remembers telling his wife, “My job certainly is a lot tougher than his.”
Gray probably didn’t need Abernathy’s help to stay out of hell.
Gray’s mother had sent him to Nashville Christian Institute with high hopes that he’d become a minister, and by the time he was 12, he was one of the school’s “boy preachers,” traveling throughout the South trying to raise money for the school and recruit students. He lived on campus and before he’d graduated from high school, he was a part-time minister for several congregations.
In 1974, Gray’s church in Tuskegee, Ala., merged with an all-white church, becoming one of the first integrated congregations in the Church of Christ. Gray still is an elder there.
“Not only was I able to destroy segregation in government, education and transportation,” he wrote, “but also in the church. My ministerial work has been a complement to my legal work and the legal work has supplemented my ministerial work. They have worked hand-in-hand.”
It is that latter experience Jones hopes Gray will bring to his congregation as they contemplate “racial reconciliation.”
“You know, we’re very tolerant; Seattle is a very tolerant city,” Jones says. “But that doesn’t mean we’re reconciled. We hold hands and talk to one another, but that doesn’t mean we’re friends, one with each other. That’s what we hope to accomplish here. We want to pitch our tents together and enter each other’s worlds and be reconciled.”
Remember the man and the hero, not just half the dream
By Julian Bond, civil-rights activist and teacher
This story originally ran in The Seattle Times, April 4, 1993.
IN THE 25 YEARS SINCE HIS DEATH, Martin Luther King Jr. has become an American hero, joining a long list of others from the American past.
King’s public career lasted from the Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott in 1955 to his murder in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968. Today, this self-effacing, quiet man is memorialized by monuments, street names and a national holiday.
Our early national heroes were warriors and soldiers, whose acts expressed the pioneer spirit that defined the nation. George Washington, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were larger-than-life figures who captured the public imagination. They appeared when the American frontier was real, danger apparent everywhere, and physical heroism a proper response.
In modern times, our heroes have come to us through a popular press eager to manufacture and exaggerate. When an electrified press created a single America of instantaneous shared experience through radio and then television, our expectations of our heroes changed as well.
TODAY, THEY ARE NOT ONLY REQUIRED TO COMMIT heroic acts; we also demand that they sound and look heroic. The high-pitched voices of labor leader Eugene V. Debs and Theodore Roosevelt cause nervous laughter when we hear them now. George Bush could not escape the “wimp” label, despite being a World War II hero.
Instant communication now gives us heroes drawn at least as often from the playing field as from the battleground, and changes in our view of the national good also have changed our view of whom we think ought to be celebrated.
John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were despised as voracious and insatiable “special interests” by many members of my parents’ generation; more recently, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky occupied hero status for many.
Having gone from the buckskin-clad backwoodsman to the expensive-suited Wall Streeter, from the white wigged founding fathers to the jerry-curled sports stars, we now draw our heroes from a larger, more diverse population, celebrating special achievements in sports or business as much as yesterday’s heroics in nation building and in war.
While yesterday’s heroes won freedom for the nation, King wrested freedom from the nation for the descendants of the nation’s slaves.
We remember him from grainy black-and-white film taken at the 1963 March on Washington of an articulate preacher who had a dream.
We honor him because of what his memory summons: the stoic who faced injury and death before howling mobs, and the single figure of his period and ours able to articulate to whites what blacks wanted and to blacks what would be expected if freedom’s prize was won.
That King is half a man, a blurred image of the King that was.
The annual reappraisals of his leadership, of the movement he helped make and that helped make him, and most recently of his personal character, have taken a familiar path.
These reappraisals are not peculiar to King; they shape the memory of all our heroes. From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson to John Kennedy, those we enshrine are set in permanence in our national firmament; their glow may sparkle, then sometimes dim, but their reflective light shines on unchanged. King seems secure as the premier domestic fighter for freedom in the 20th century.
Few had heard of him when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat in 1955; by the boycott’s end a year later, he had joined the small circle of older, nationally recognized black civil rights leaders as an equal. His courage, his dedication to nonviolence, his ability to articulate the longings of Southern blacks to free themselves from domestic apartheid, and his linking of that struggle to the American dream ensured his place in the national consciousness.
But he quickly separated himself from black America’s recognized spokesmen. Almost alone among them, he argued for and organized militant, non-violent mass action as a substitute for, and a complement to, the slow and plodding legal strategies embraced by most, and he alone spoke of the power of non-violent resistance and redemptive suffering.
His dramatic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial cemented his place as first among equals in civil rights leadership; from this first televised mass meeting, an American audience saw and heard the unedited oratory of America’s finest preacher, and for the first time, a mass white audience heard the undeniable justice of black demands.
WITH HIS 1964 NOBEL PEACE PRIZE AS JUSTIFICATION, King, a year later, attacked the war in Vietnam, alienating Lyndon Johnson, the most pro-civil rights president in American history. The civil rights movement, enjoying its widest national support at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, was actually preparing to self-destruct, its demands increasing and its public support diminishing.
“I’m much more than a civil rights leader,” King said of himself that year. A year later he told his Atlanta congregation: “There must be a better distribution of wealth… . We can’t have a system where some of the people live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.”
His last years were marked by changes in black America’s demands and white America’s response. In 1955 in Montgomery, blacks had peacefully asked for seats at an abundant table; they could gain, and no one would lose. As the movement eliminated legal segregation and attacked segregation’s legacy, demanding relief from the residual damage it continued to do, many whites began to believe blacks wanted the entire table for themselves.
The racial violence King had fought against in life erupted in the aftermath of his murder. The movement he had led disintegrated in ashes, torn apart by demands the nation would not meet.
Eighteen years later, President Ronald Reagan reluctantly signed the law that made King’s birthday a national holiday, and today most schoolchildren know part of the story of Martin Luther King.
They know King fought for integration in Montgomery and spoke in Washington of his dream. They do not know that until his life’s end he fought for economic justice and against the racism that survived the laws the movement won, or that he had challenged America’s right to make war in Vietnam.
Today we do not honor the critic of capitalism, or the pacifist who declared all wars evil, or the man of God who argued that a nation that chose guns over butter would starve its people and kill itself. We do not honor the man who linked apartheid in South Africa and Alabama; we honor an antiseptic hero.
We have stripped his life of controversy, and celebrate the conventional instead.
During his lifetime, many raised objections against his deification; these warnings bear repeating when imprecise memories are summoned today.
Americans long for single, heroic leadership, the lone figure delivering salvation. King became that figure, but he came from a movement that was group-centered, representing democracy at its best.
He did not march from Selma to Montgomery by himself. He did not speak to an empty field at the March on Washington. There were thousands marching with him and before him, and thousands more who one by one and two by two did the work that preceded the triumphal march.
Black Americans did not just march to freedom; we worked our way to civil rights through the difficult business of organizing. Registering voters one by one. Building a solid organization, block by block. Building interracial coalitions, state by state.
Today we yearn for another King-like figure, seemingly unable to build a movement by ourselves. King and the civil rights movement conquered legal racism. A quarter of a century after his death, extra-legal racism still cripples and crushes, but there is no King and little movement to fight it now.
Written on a plaque in the hotel room in which King was killed are these words:
“Behold here comes the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what becomes of his dream.”
Today we remember and celebrate half of a man. We have realized only half of his dream.
When he wrote this, Julian Bond was teaching about the civil rights movement at the American University and the University of Virginia. He was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and was a student in a philosophy class taught by Martin Luther King Jr., at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Andrew Young reflects on his struggle in the civil-rights movement
By Mary Elizabeth Cronin, Seattle Times staff reporter
This story originally ran in The Seattle Times Nov. 13, 1996.
A pillow fight broke out at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on the afternoon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy each lifted a pillow and pummeled Andrew Young, who had just returned from a day spent in court. He had been negotiating to remove the federal restraining order temporarily halting a march in support of the Memphis garbage workers’ strike.
The pillow fight was a playful moment, one seldom told of in the serious and sometimes deadly 1960s struggle for civil rights. It’s one of many poignant and intimate details Young includes in his memoir, “An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America” (HarperCollins; $27.50).
The civil-rights struggle is seen through his eyes. The son of a dentist and schoolteacher in New Orleans, Young and his family were middle class in income but second class in a society in which skin color determined where one could live, drink water or sit on a bus.
Young was in Seattle yesterday on the last leg of an 11-city speaking tour. He spoke last night at Mount Zion Baptist Church — a fitting locale, given that his calling as a congregationalist minister led him to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s civil-rights movement.
Young describes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as one of six main organizations then working for civil rights.
Yesterday, over coffee and an English muffin in a downtown restaurant, Young talked about his life, his 64 years showing in some salt in his pepper-black hair and a stockier build on his 5-foot-9 frame.
After King’s assassination, Young served three terms as a Georgia congressman, two years as United Nations ambassador for President Jimmy Carter and two terms as mayor of Atlanta. Young and his wife, Jean, raised four children; she died of liver cancer in 1994.
He now is chairman of President Bill Clinton’s Southern African Enterprise Development Fund.
“I like my life,” Young says, his mouth easing into a sheepish smile as he shrugs his shoulders apologetically. “I’ve had a good life. I think the reason is my parents taught me that life is a burden. But if you take it one day at a time, it’s an easy burden.”
Young exudes contentment. He lived the biblical good life. He marched through the valley of the shadow of evil against segregation in Birmingham, to gain the right to vote in Selma. And the nation is better off because of it.
The controversy stirred by racism among Texaco executives underscores how far we’ve come as a society, Young told the racially mixed crowd of 150 or so at Mount Zion. “Twenty five years ago it was the rule. Now it is the exception.”
The book also discusses the behind-the-scenes debates, preparation and intrigue that laid the foundation for the movement. Before each march, SCLC staff trained volunteers in the Gandhian principles of nonviolence and kept a dialogue open with their opponents in city government. “One of the principles of nonviolence is that you leave your opponents whole and better off than you found them,” Young wrote.
Young is a self-avowed optimist, even while warning how the third evil King prophesied — poverty — continues to haunt the soul of America. Race was the first evil. Once King’s efforts shifted from Southern desegregation to Chicago’s “Movement to End Slums,” he realized that while racism affected all blacks, poverty does not.
War was the second evil. Young sees progress on that front as well, in the anti-nuclear weapon movement, the thawing of the Soviet cold war.
But poverty remains. And while poverty and its symptoms occur disproportionately in African-American communities, poverty is not a black issue. When King was killed, he had just launched the Poor People’s Campaign and was planning a march on Washington, D.C., with a coalition of 23 racial and economic groups.
Welfare legislation recently passed by Congress concerns Young: “In a sane, civil, intelligent and moral society you don’t blame poor people for being poor. I predict that 25 years from now we are going to be just as embarrassed about homelessness as we are about racism.”
The consummate diplomat, Young says Congress cornered Clinton into signing the bill. But, he says, creating economic opportunity needn’t be a partisan issue. It comes down to dollars and cents: a four-year degree costs $20,000; a 10-year prison sentence costs $250,000.
“The encouraging thing is, if presented properly, this is something where Newt Gingrich, President Clinton and certainly Jack Kemp could find common ground. The situation is critical enough that we are going to have to do something soon. We have the knowledge. We have the money. We have the need. We have just lacked the leadership.”
Young described the Memphis pillow fight as exhilarating after a tense week. They were jovial as they dressed for dinner. Young waited in the parking lot, shadowboxing with James Orange. He heard what sounded like a car backfire and glanced up to see King slumped on the balcony.
An assassin’s bullet ended King’s dream, but not Young’s faith. Last night, as he quoted his family’s standard Bible passage, “From those to whom much has been given will much be required,” several people murmured “Uh-huh. That’s right. Amen.”
When King came to town
By Ferdinand de Leon, Seattle Times staff reporter
This story originally ran in The Seattle Times Jan. 16, 1994.
THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO, the Rev. Samuel B. McKinney used his personal connections and cashed in all earned favors to get an old college friend to come to the Northwest for a visit.
McKinney was then new kid on the block, an idealistic young minister who moved from the East Coast three years earlier to take over the leadership of Mount Zion Baptist Church. And he was full of ideas.
His most ambitious was to invite the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he had known since the two were freshmen - both of them minister’s sons - at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“He had never been to this city, I felt that we needed to hear him,” McKinney said.
In his cluttered office, McKinney, now 67 and still the pastor of Mount Zion, recently reminisced about the invitation, the resulting controversy, King’s brief stay in November 1961 and its long-term impact on the city and its African-American community.
It was to be the only time King set foot in Seattle.
THE SEEDS FOR KING’S VISIT were planted the year before when a group of ministers rallied in support of King’s efforts to fight segregation in the South.
“We sent him a $3,000 check, unsought, unrequested and unsolicited,” McKinney said. “Later he had his father thank me for him. Later, he said what do you want? We said we want you to come here - that isn’t why we sent the check to you, but now that you asked, we’d like you to come to the Northwest, which he did.”
King came as part of a lecture series presented by the Brotherhood of Mount Zion Baptist Church, a program McKinney started. Knowing the church’s facilities at 1634 19th Ave. would be too small to accommodate the number of people who would turn out to see King, the church leaders looked for other venues.
At the time the city was caught up in preparations for the Seattle World’s Fair, which opened the spring of the following year. The old War Memorial Auditorium, which would have been the preferred choice, was being converted into a concert-convention hall.
Church leaders turned to the First Presbyterian Church, on Seventh Avenue and Spring Street, which could accommodate 3,000 people, the minimum McKinney expected for the event. In August a tentative agreement was reached to rent the facility.
THE NEWS OF KING’S VISIT was enthusiastically greeted in the African-American community. King was then only 32, but he was already the undisputed leader in the fight for civil rights. “He was considered, at that time, the most radical of all African-American voices on the scene,” McKinney said.
He was also a very busy man. In the fall of 1961, King announced an ambitious effort by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to register a majority of the South’s 5 million eligible black voters. Just two weeks before coming to Seattle, he was in England, lecturing in London.
“It was an exciting thing,” said Yvonne Beatty, then a member of Mount Zion’s choir. “We had been following his career from day one and we had a lot of respect and curiosity. We wanted to hear him. It was wonderful that we could be face to face with him.”
But not everyone was happy about the invitation.
The more conservative members of the African-American community worried about possible troubles that might come with a King visit, McKinney said.
OVER THE COURSE OF THE FOLLOWING month, McKinney said he received several phone calls threatening harm to King, and to McKinney and his family. Members of the congregation who worked at Boeing reported finding anti-King material surreptitiously left on their desks.
While race relations in Seattle had none of the turmoil seen in the South, racism was still a fact of life for many of the city’s minorities.
“A lot of people thought it was better than it was,” McKinney said. “It was better than some of the places many African Americans came from, but it certainly wasn’t the promised land. On the surface it looked good, but you could detect more subtle strains of racism.”
McKinney remembers that Washelli Cemetery segregated the black infants in its Babyland section, and African Americans also faced widespread discrimination, particularly in housing, and in employment.
In mid-October, just weeks before King’s scheduled arrival and shortly after materials about his lecture were circulated, First Presbyterian Church canceled the oral agreement to rent the sanctuary to Mount Zion. McKinney was notified in a letter from the church’s rental committee that the cancellation was due to construction work and other commitments.
McKinney quickly denounced the move as “prejudice of an extreme conservatism, religious or racial.” Today the word he uses for First Presbyterian’s action is “racist.”
The church leaders immediately denied the charges. Arthur E. Simon, the clerk of First Presbyterian’s leadership group, said Mount Zion had “proceeded on a mistaken idea.” The Rev. Ralph Turnbull, the church’s pastor, said the accusation was ridiculous because the church had blacks in its membership, its Sunday school and its employ.
McKinney and five members of the brotherhood appealed the decision at a meeting of First Presbyterian’s leaders. Simon said church rules dictate that the sanctuary could be used only for religious meetings and that Mount Zion had advertised it as a lecture. They also questioned the solicitation to underwrite the lecture costs. McKinney responded that patrons would have reserved seats but admission would be free. Finally, Simon objected to having the proceeds go not to Mount Zion’s building fund but to King’s enterprises.
“They would not admit it was a matter of race or philosophy, but tried to make it a procedural thing,” McKinney said. “They offered to pay the expenses we had incurred to that point. We refused.”
NEWS OF FIRST PRESBYTERIAN’S ACTION spread - and so did reaction.
The Christian Friends for Racial Equality criticized the cancellation, and Robert B. Shaw, pastor of the Grace Methodist Church, called it “the most deplorable action by any Christian church in Seattle in many years.” The Baptist Ministers Conference of Seattle and Vicinity also protested the cancellation. The Capitol Hill Ministerial Association, meanwhile, issued a commendation to Mount Zion for bringing King to Seattle. The Plymouth Congregational Church offered the use of its facility for a reception following the lecture, which was moved to another downtown facility, the Eagles Auditorium.
The harshest slap to First Presbyterian came just before King’s arrival, when the Presbytery of Seattle commended King to its member churches. The Presbytery also directed its ministerial relations committee to investigate the circumstances of the canceled agreement after Turnbull, First Presbyterian’s pastor, refused to discuss the matter on the floor of the Presbytery, saying he had not been told he would be called on for a statement.
The wire services carried news of the controversy across the country and McKinney said he got a call from King asking him what was going on. McKinney reassured him, and they agreed that publicity over the controversy actually had benefited them in the long run.
While First Presbyterian developed cold feet about King, others quickly jumped on the bandwagon and invited him to speak - among them Garfield High School Principal Frank Hanawalt.
BUT HANAWALT SOON came under fire. One parent protested to the School Board that King was “a controversial figure known to be associated with causes inimical to the United States,” a reference to rumors circulated by King detractors linking him to communist causes. On the day of King’s arrival, however, the School Board refused to interfere with the Garfield appearance. Superintendent Ernest W. Campbell said the Seattle schools did not shy away from controversial subjects. Lyle Goss, a board member, asked: “What in the world today isn’t controversial?”
Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Seattle Wednesday evening on Nov. 8, 1961. By the time his plane was greeted by a small group of supporters, his Seattle itinerary had become packed with public appearances, including talks at the University of Washington and Temple de Hirsch’s forum-lecture series.
McKinney, who was his host and escort during the visit, said it was the last time King traveled alone. King said there had been bomb threats on some planes and threats on his life. He also told McKinney that in Chicago and Birmingham he had spotted men who appeared to be following him. While standing alone on the stage, he saw them moving toward him, but when someone came out on the stage to join King, they vanished.
As a security precaution, McKinney made arrangements for a man to serve as chauffeur and bodyguard.
ON THURSDAY, WHEN MCKINNEY went to pick up King at the Olympic Hotel (now the Four Seasons Olympic) to take him to the University of Washington, King was on the phone talking to Robert Kennedy.
“The Kennedys had not initially been involved in the black struggle, but once Kennedy became president he tried to co-opt it, and so there was a little struggle there,” McKinney said. “It was a friendly conversation, but there was a slight edge.”
At the old Meany Hall (which has since been torn down and replaced), King spoke to more than 2,000 students. His lunch-time lecture was titled “Segregation and the Civil Liberties: Implications for Students,” and in it King called on President Kennedy to use executive order to declare all segregation unconstitutional.
King talked about the role young people played in the civil-rights struggle and discussed the student sit-in movement and the freedom rides.
“The student movements have done more to save the soul of the nation than anything I can think of,” King told his audience. A reporter covering the event said King “had the audience in his palm.” He was greeted with roaring applause, and finished to a standing ovation. Afterward, he was surrounded by well-wishers and autograph seekers.
That night his speaking tour continued with a lecture at Temple de Hirsch.
In the few hours King was free, he visited with fraternity brothers who lived in the area and saw family friends.
KING’S SECOND FULL DAY in Seattle was even busier, starting with two morning assemblies at Garfield High School, which had the largest number of African-American students of the city’s high schools.
He called for brotherhood and urged young people to do “creative” protest to break down racial segregation and discrimination.
“There was an inspirational theme underlying most of his speeches,” McKinney recalled. “He did a motivational talk to the young people at Garfield exhorting them to make something of themselves and their lives.”
Beatty, whose daughter and niece attended Garfield, said the two young women were in awe of King. When one of her niece’s white classmates said to her that King was her leader, she corrected her: “That’s our leader,” she replied.
“She was just amazed that others could think otherwise,” Beatty said.
The main event of King’s visit to Seattle was his lecture at the old Eagles Auditorium, at Seventh Avenue and Union Street, which drew supporters from as far away as Spokane and Canada.
Beatty, who was part of the choir that sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” remembers the auditorium was packed. The building was used primarily for dances, so the church had to rent the chairs.
“The hall was shaking - literally,” Beatty said.
The speech King gave was about the struggles of common, ordinary people in the South, stories his predominantly African-American audience could easily relate to since many of them had come from that part of the country.
“When he spoke, you could hear a pin drop. That was how quiet and receptive the audience was,” Beatty said.
AFTER THE EAGLES LECTURE and reception, King asked McKinney if they could go to a barbecue restaurant McKinney had pointed out earlier.
“He had been on a pretty fast track and he had been wined and dined in some pretty fancy places,” McKinney said. “He said, `Now I don’t want to go to anybody’s home, or any fancy place, I want to go up there.’ So that’s where he went.”
McKinney called the owner of the restaurant, Mitchell’s Bar-be-cue, and asked them to stay open a little later.
“We stayed there till about three in the morning and he ate two helpings of everything they had on the menu.”
McKinney said they mostly talked about old times and told jokes.
“My wife said that the two of us tried to outlie each other,” McKinney said, smiling at the memory. “We were just having a good time.”
As they sat there, people walked in from off the street to shake his hand, and King spent time talking to them. Later, after King’s death, a man asked for McKinney’s help in getting money to go to Atlanta for the funeral. When asked why he was so determined to go, he reminded McKinney that he was at the restaurant the night King stopped by. He remembered being made to feel welcome as he stood there and listened to King talk.
King’s visit to Seattle ended a few hours later. He got back to his hotel room around 4 o’clock Saturday morning, and later missed his flight to Atlanta, which was set to leave around 8 a.m. McKinney switched him to the next plane.
“He came away singing our praises,” McKinney said. “He was impressed by the progressive attitude he saw in the city, especially in the African-American community.”
KING ALSO MADE an impression on Seattle.
“His visit left a good feeling in the community,” McKinney said. “People were excited, motivated, turned up, ready to take the world on. It had that kind of effect.”
The long-term effect was that it enabled members of the local African-American community to commit themselves to joining the struggles here, McKinney said.
“I think it encouraged us to follow his direction,” Beatty said. “His influence directed the routes that we took in Seattle. The marches that we had in Seattle were all peaceful forms of protest.”
Said McKinney: “He was the right man at the right time at the right place with the right message.”
King, who had a standing invitation to revisit the city, was never able to take up that offer. His wife, Coretta, came when she toured the West Coast as a singer and so did other leaders of the civil-rights movement, such as Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“His schedule never permitted him to return, and I guess he had to go where the heat was the hottest,” McKinney said. For the few remaining years of his life before he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, that heat only got hotter in many parts of the country.
Then and now: Two pastors talk about the struggle for equality
In 1958, just as the civil rights movement in the South was starting to gain national attention, two pastors moved to Seattle to take over new assignments: the Rev. Samuel McKinney at the predominately black Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and the Rev. Dale Turner at the predominately white University Congregational Church.
A year or two later, Turner invited McKinney to speak at University Congregational; that visit was followed by a number of informal meetings between the two and a third pastor, John Hurst Adams (who has since left the area), to talk about ways of addressing race relations from the pulpit.
More than 35 years after they first met, the Revs. Turner and McKinney sat down again in December, 1995, for a conversation with Seattle Times religion reporter Lee Moriwaki.
They talked about the mood of the times then and now, and about the impact of Martin Luther King Jr. — a classmate of McKinney's at Morehouse College. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Remembering another era
Moriwaki: What was the racial climate in Seattle back in 1958? Was it good, bad, indifferent?
McKinney: From my perspective it was confused. Because Seattle was a long way from, say, the deep South. Some people thought it was heaven, but Seattle, I felt, at that time, and still do to some degree, was insulated and isolated. Since we were in the corner of the country, nobody felt that any good thing could come out of here; nobody knew of anything really happening here. And many people, African-American and white, were confused about race. There were problems here. There was a problem about housing. But some people thought that since Seattle appeared to be better and different from the place from whence they came, they thought it was heaven.
Turner: We brought a Japanese-American fellow on our staff soon after I was here in ‘58. I went many places finding a place for him to live. There was segregation for the Japanese too, as well as for the African-Americans. And it was a very confused situation. There was segregation; it was very evident. And going around with him trying to find a place for him to live, I discovered prejudices that I had not suspected. But they were there.
Moriwaki: Dr. Turner, what prompted you to invite Dr. McKinney to your church?
Turner: We’d become friends by then and I appreciated what he had to say, and I felt that our people needed to have exposure to someone who really interpreted the faith in the right way, intelligent way. And who was incidentally a black person. I remember when Sam came to our church it made a great deal of difference to the people. And helped to maybe eliminate some prejudices that people had.
McKinney: I think I spoke about moving from the margins to the center. How many people are marginalized. A process of raising boundaries and moving to the center. Although the center was a small place, it was large enough to accommodate.
Turner: Several people told me that their ideas were changed on the basis of what Dr. McKinney had to say. It was a very positive thing. The more that you get to know one another the more we find we are all people, and color or nationality is unimportant. The segregation that we’d had has denied us that.
Turner: I remember meeting one time with you and John Adams and I said, “Someday we’ll meet and we won’t be discussing racial relation.” And John said, “Not in our time, Turner, not in our time.” And here we are, 30 some years later. I’m still wondering if his comment does have very real relevance to the situation.
Reflecting on King’s legacy
Moriwaki: What would you say is Dr. King’s legacy?
Turner: Well I still think the word “love” in its deeper agape, all-inclusive meaning. Unconditional love was what he had to say, and said it so very beautifully and demonstrated it so wonderfully. Marching in parades when he was a victim of things being thrown at him, and never altering his non-violence. I think Gandhi affected him, and nonviolence is certainly one of the things that would be his legacy. He was just a very marvelous illustration of what the New Testament faith is all about. He demonstrated it in the way he lived and reacted and preached and everything he did. It was just New Testament.
McKinney: (I would agree with) much of what Dale has already said plus maybe take it a step further. King was willing to challenge the evil of hatred and racism by putting his own life on the line. He did not run from bigotry but he was willing to face it head-on. He was willing to fight it, but not fight back.
This was perhaps underscored by his understanding of the teachings of Gandhi. He recognized the power of hatred and evil but he also knew the power of good…
At the time of King’s death, there was a reaction growing in the black communities, especially the northern, urban communities. And especially in places like Chicago where King did not have a clear victory, because he ran into a type of racism unlike what he encountered in the South. He was not receiving the kind of victories, and there were people who felt that this non-violent approach did not work. They had tried it.
So you had the urban rebellion and reaction and resistance in places like Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark, which really flew in the face of what he stood for.
I was in his home in Atlanta the first Sunday of October, 1965. This was after the march from Selma to Montgomery. And he said at that time he knew that he was on a collision course with destiny and that he would die violently.
We were discussing it very candidly because I raised questions about taking the same people that walked over the delta, in Mississippi, and that had worked with him in the south, to a northern, urban community.
I grew up in quote “the north.” And there were some differences at that time. I did not have a commitment to non-violence, because I could physically fight back if somebody called me the N-word.
Well my first name is Samuel, I had to deal with being called Sambo. And there was some distinction among students — even when I first entered Morehouse — between those from the north and the south.
King’s message today
Moriwaki: If Dr. King were to return today do you think he would be saying the same things or do you think his message would be different?
Turner: I think that he would be saying the same thing, really. I don’t think he would alter it. I think he would say it with more force. He was just a phenomenal person.
It’s hard to assess how he would be received today. But I can’t see him altering his non-violent approach. He would deepen his commitment to what he always believed.
McKinney: I think it would be basically the same except maybe stated in language of the ‘90’s. But I also think we need to recognize that the day of a single leader or a Moses is past.
And even in Dr. King’s time, a lot of his victories were situational. When there was a crisis, then he came in. But in every community into which he went, he was invited and there were local leaders on the scene who accepted his national presence in a way that focused attention on their situation in that locale, and helped give it national prominence and exposure.
If King came back
Moriwaki: If Dr. King were to come back today, what would his first reaction be to what he sees?
McKinney: It might be like Rip Van Winkle. You talk about Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep, the British were in charge, he woke up and was a new American. There would be some adjusting to it.
I think we have to see Martin Luther King Jr. in the same light that we saw Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois one hundred years ago. Not to dismiss them as irrelevant, and not making sense, but they are milestones along the way. Points of progress that represent our struggle and where we came from and where we need to go. And it is a continuous struggle.
There are people who are struggling to keep the legacy alive so we will not be sidetracked by hatred or venom. (There is) the whole jail system, for instance. In this state of Washington, with less than four percent African-Americans in the population, we constitute 29 percent of all the people who are incarcerated. Young black men are being put in jail and there’s no escape. And the attitude in the country is to get rid of them.
John Adams was right. Not in our lifetime. The stumbling stone this country has to overcome, and it will be there for America to stumble over, is the matter of race. And what I’m hearing today is that many whites don’t want reconciliation.
They do not want to be integrated, if they are no longer (feeling they’re) in charge of the situation. If the neighborhood tilts beyond 40 percent of the schools or even 20 percent, they’re ready to run.
Moriwaki: What do you think Martin Luther King’s reaction would be to the Million Man March? How would he have fit into it or observed it or reacted to it?
McKinney: Oh, I think he would have been a major player in it and I think that because of the absence of King, a type of leadership is now out there that has not been crowned by the public. Farakkhan is not our new leader.
He is a person, he is a voice, he represents a point of view that cannot be ignored by either the African-American or the white community. And I think we have to recognize that for what it is. And I’m not quite sure myself how King would fit in.
Turner: Your insights, Sam, are so different from mine.
You have been part of the group that has been the victim of the prejudice and the white community that has visited it upon the black person. And you see things in many ways with more depth and more breadth than I do. And I know this.
And it makes me want to study more to know how to overcome the prejudices that still exist.
I was reared in a society that told me that a person of color could not eat where I did and go to the movie and sit in the same section or even play on the same team. This is what I heard.
And then I went to church and heard that all people are equal. But the discrepancy is so, so pronounced in this society that I found it hard to disengage myself from the belief that somehow people were not all alike.
Qualities of leadership
Moriwaki: What qualities are needed from today’s leaders to elevate them to the importance of a Dr. King?
McKinney: Leaders, I think, have to be visionaries. Father Divine created many words, but one word, I don’t think it’s made it into the dictionary, he liked to use the word “you have to ‘tangibilitate’ situations.”
What he meant was to make it real, make it tangible — that you could feel it, taste it, touch it. We don’t have any visionaries. Maybe that’s what the nation lacks. We do not have as a nation right now in a leadership role a vision which inspires people.
Turner: I think leaders need persistence first of all, no matter what the obstacles. To persist in doing what you think is right. Like Martin Luther King did. He persisted, he embodied it and carried it with him everywhere he went. I think often those who do the most good aren’t necessarily those who try the hardest, but those who, like a full-laden apple tree, are so rich in their own spiritual fruitage, that no one can brush against a branch without bringing down something good to eat. And to embody, to carry with you, what you say you believe in. Persist in it always. Having the courage of persistence, I think, is the essence of leadership.
Sonia Sanchez speaks
Noted poet and activist Sonia Sanchez visited Seattle in November 1995 to promote her latest book of poetry, “Wounded in the House of A Friend.” These sound files contain excerpts from a short interview at Elliott Bay Book Company.
Sanchez had met King once, during a stop on his book tour shortly before he was stabbed in 1957. Though she does not think King or Malcolm X or the Kennedys will “come again,” Sanchez says she believes that good leaders will always come as the times demand.
King was a man of peace:
The day King died, phone lines went out:
The assassination was part of the bigger violence:
Making the calendar
This is an abridged version of a Seattle Times article that appeared in 1985 — a year before the first celebration of the holiday in King's honor.
By Paul Andrews, Seattle Times staff reporter
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew it takes time for attitudes to change, would not have been surprised that nearly two decades were required to make his birthday a legal holiday.
If anything, King, whose magnificent dream always had a pragmatic cast, would have been surprised that it has happened at all.
Even putting aside King’s controversial career and his minority race, the odds against the new holiday were imposing. The arguments opposing it — cost to taxpayers, singling him out over others – have been used for decades to resist creation of any new holiday.
His birthday is today. The official holiday, on the third Monday of January, begins next year. To place the new date in some perspective, consider:
It is the first new holiday since 1948, when Memorial Day was created as a “prayer for peace” day. And it’s only the third this century (the other is Veterans Day, created as Armistice Day in 1926 to honor those who died in World War I).
King is the only American besides George Washington to have a national holiday designated for his birthday (those of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and others have been celebrated in some states but not nationwide).
Internationally, King is one of the few social leaders of any country to be honored with a holiday (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday is observed in India). Such status by a member of a country’s racial minority is almost unheard of. Generally, the honor is reserved for military or religious figures.
Given such obstacles, the holiday is a powerful tribute to King’s philosophy and stature.
“As is usually the case with great figures, particularly controversial ones who are fighting for a philosophy condemned by many, Dr. King was well ahead of his time,” says Joseph Lowery, King’s contemporary counterpart as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. “Even those very much opposed to him during his lifetime have come to see that segregation, injustice and militarism are concerns which must be addressed by modern society.”
When President Reagan signed legislation creating the holiday in November 1983, it marked the end of a persistent, highly organized lobbying effort spanning the nation for 15 years.
“We worked hard to put together a national effort and make a powerful network,” recalls Cedric Hendricks, legislative aide to Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat. It was Conyers who, four days after King was assassinated in Memphis, submitted the first legislation to commemorate his birthday.
Petitions carrying more than 6 million signatures — said to be the largest petition drive in history — were submitted to Congress in 1970. With help from New York Democratic Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Conyers resubmitted the legislation during each congressional session.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which coordinated the petition campaign, also kept continuous pressure on Congress for the holiday. Mass marches in 1982 for voting rights and 1983 to mark the 20th anniversary of King’s dramatic speech in Washington, D.C., also contributed.
It took bipartisan support to overcome the opposition of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who labeled King a Communist, and President Reagan’s lukewarm attitude toward the legislation, Lowery said.
In the final analysis, what may have sealed approval of the holiday was a compromise offered by Rep. Katie Hall, Indiana Democrat who marshalled support in the House for the legislation. Hall, responding to criticism that the holiday would be too close to the Christmas-New Year’s week, moved its observance to the third Monday of the month. The notion of a three-day weekend, plus the fact that the third Monday often follows Super Bowl Sunday, helped put the measure over the top, supporters say.
Arguments concerning money dominated opposition to the holiday. Costs associated with lost services on the King holiday were estimated at $18 million for the federal government; at $7 million to Washington state; at $1.18 million to Seattle. The estimated total was an astronomical $8 billion for government and private sector combined.
“Every time we’d bring the bill up in the Legislature, people would say, ’$7 million! Are you kidding?! What about all the people starving in the streets?!”’ recalls Washington state Sen. George Fleming, Seattle Democrat, who has led legislative efforts since the early 1970s.
Another common argument, Fleming notes, was ” ‘why put Dr. King above other famous people?’ They didn’t think his legacy would stand the test of time.”
Both arguments, Fleming feels, are used to conceal racist resistance to the holiday.
Most holiday proposals encounter strong opposition, particularly today. Moreover, just about every constituency has some day it would like to commemorate. Feminists have long fought for a Susan B. Anthony Day on the suffragist’s birthday Feb. 15. The Irish would prefer to have St. Patrick’s Day off, the Finns St. Urho’s Day (March 16). Tree lovers and environmentalists can make a case for Arbor Day to be an official holiday. Commercial interests push Valentine’s Day.
While legislation supporting these holidays has never gotten beyond the lip-service stage, special interests have created a number of holidays not universally observed. Longshoremen, for instance, take off Harry Bridges’ birthday to honor the popular labor leader. In the south, Robert E. Lee’s birthday has long been observed by various states on the third Monday of January. This creates an interesting historical contradiction for those that, like Virginia, are adding observance of King’s birthday to that date as well.
Not specifically patriotic or religious, the King holiday does not fit any traditional category. But black leaders hope it will become a deeply spiritual day.
I think it should be devoted to some activity which expresses love of our fellow person, or spiritual recognition of some kind,” says Dr. Donald G. Phelps, chancellor of Seattle Community College District, which for the past 11 years has conducted a widely attended memorial service in King’s honor on his birthday. “As we’ve celebrated it in the past, it’s become a day where more people come together in an ecumenical way — go to other churches, worship together the way we don’t on Sunday — than any other. It’s a day when we can honor Dr. King’s principles, which are really American principles in their truest form.
“It shouldn’t be a holiday where we all go fishing.”