Living the Dream

Jan 17, 2011

Last week I talked to a woman in an accounting office about an issue involving an electronic tax payment.

“I’ll take care of that Monday,” she told me.

"I don’t think you can," I said. "Monday is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday."

“What?“ she said. “Oh, that. I don’t celebrate that,” she said with a tone of annoyance.

It wasn’t her holiday, she wanted me to know, and she thought it was highly inappropriate for anybody to get a day off, and for government offices and banks to be closed.

You won’t be surprised to learn that she wasn’t African-American. Nor that she didn’t know much, really, about Dr. Martin Luther King. However, I’m not sure that a lot of the people who do enthusiastically celebrate it know much about him either.

I know another woman who is taking her kids skiing today. She was, and is, an enthusiastic Obama supporter.

But she is going to use her day off to hit the ski slopes, which is probably not what Dr. King was talking about when he spoke of leading his people to the promised land, the night before he died.

What we’ve managed to do in this country is make MLK, as the kids call him today, into some sort of sanitized plaster saint.

The official myth goes something like this: King was a young preacher with a fantastic voice who had a dream that everybody would have the same rights to vote and to eat at the same lunch counters in fast food restaurants.

Best of all, he was against violence, unlike that bad Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. He wanted everybody to get along, and led peaceful protest marches. And then, when he was helping some people in Memphis, Tennessee a bad man shot him.

And he died. But his dream inspired millions, and today we have an African-American President in the White House. The End.

Well, there is a little  truth in that. But the real Martin Luther King Jr. was a far more complex man, who wasn’t regarded as safe at all by the establishment during his lifetime.

A year before he died, he denounced the Vietnam war in utterly blistering terms. He was turned off by materialism, conspicuous consumption, and the military-industrial complex. Historian James Washington concluded that MLK offered us “a blueprint for what America could become if it trusted its democratic legacy,” but that this dream proved too threatening. Not because it promised political equality.

But because it hinted at economic redistribution.

There are those who disagree. But it is very clear is that King  is a man who deserves to be studied. They are doing just that in Grand Rapids this evening, with the filmmaker who made “Eyes on the Prize” giving the keynote speech.

They are doing similar things elsewhere around the state, and nation, as part of day of service programs established in his honor.

I know enough about King to suspect he’d like us to be doing one of two things today. Volunteering somewhere to make this world a better place. That, or learning what he was really all about.

I think that as long as enough of us do both things, his dream will indeed never die.