|"Moving In" by Norman Rockwell|
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is tomorrow—a holiday which Illinois was the first state in the nation to officially celebrate, thanks to the efforts of a state legislator named Harold Washington.
But King's actual birthday is today, Jan. 15. His message is even more important now that our president will be someone who openly appeals to racial bigotry. Who considers black people to be a uniform mass of hell dwellers, except of course for the few celebrities as vain, shallow and publicity-hungry as himself, who will agree to meet with him and pretend they are capable of addressing the deep-rooted problems that will certainly be neglected over the next four years. Not that they invented the practice.
Exactly 10 years ago I wrote this column item.
Today is not only Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but one of the rare instances when the holiday -- officially set as the third Monday in January -- also falls on his actual birth date, Jan. 15.
An apt coincidence, since King was 39 when he was murdered on a Memphis motel balcony, and would have been 78 today, which means that around June 1, by my calculations, will begin the period, stretching into eternity, when the man has been dead longer than he was alive.
Making this an appropriate moment to remind ourselves of the importance of King's legacy.
The marches and the speeches are what get mentioned -- they make good sound bites for the 10-second glance on television. But protest and eloquence were only the means, not the substance of what is -- in my opinion -- the reason King gets his own federal holiday alongside George Washington and Jesus.
Martin Luther King Jr. showed America the way. If you look at what kind of society we were 50 years ago, the oppression and the misery, the racism and the hate, and what kind of society we are today, or at least what kind of society we aspire to be, and ask how we got here, without revolution, without more than minimal blood-letting, the answer is: because a black preacher from Georgia decided to embrace non-violence and face his enemies with courage, dignity and faith -- faith both in his religion and faith that America would, when pressed, embrace the ideals it was founded on but ignored for so long for so many. And the nation did, eventually.
Which makes King a patriot, in my eyes, and I hope in yours, too. I know I'm putting out my flag this morning, marching my boys onto the cold porch to cover their hearts and say the pledge, and I'll explain to them why this is a holiday and why it is important. And if you do so, too, then we'll have a better country tomorrow than we have today, and the legacy of Dr. King will be well-served.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 15, 2007