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King holiday not a ‘black only’ celebration

It took years of public protest and finally legislative action before Virginia in 2000 finally separated the state holiday commemorating Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the Martin Luther King national holiday. But Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, unmoved by the protests, still commemorate Lee’s birthday along with the King Holiday.

This is the most glaring example of our nation’s continued deep ambivalence and even its blind eye toward the King holiday, but it’s hardly the only example. It’s become almost ritual to hear tales of school districts that refuse to close, businesses that refuse to make even a token acknowledgement of the day — or worse, commercialize it — and for some GOP politician to say something dumb about King on his holiday.

The blind eye, indifference or even outright disrespect of the King Holiday 28 years after the first King national holiday was officially observed shouldn’t really surprise. It took decades and hard battles to get the King federal holiday bill enacted in the first place. Along the way, the King family and millions of King admirers and devotees had to watch and listen to right-wing talking heads, led by one-time North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, heap every kind of slander, slur and abuse on King as a communist, agitator, non-patriot, plagiarizer and sexual philanderer. Then in what has to be one of the most galling flip-flops of hypocrisy in living annals, they have to listen to the same right-wing King maligners snatch a few quotes badly out of context from his speeches and writings about self-help and black crime and claim him as one of their own.

It remains to be seen what effect the repeated public appeals from President Obama and Michelle Obama urging Americans to make the King Holiday a day for public service will have. Obama certainly owes a deep debt to King and the civil rights movement. King and the movement opened the political doors for Obama and a generation of other black political figures. But Obama’s presidential appeals so far haven’t been enough to crack the lingering resistance to a full and total acknowledgement of the world-altering significance of King and the movement that he led. The reason for that is simple.

The King Holiday in far too many public and private circles still is regarded as a “black holiday” or, more charitably, a “civil rights issue.” This reinforces the fiction that King was solely a black leader, and that the civil rights movement was a movement only for blacks and that his holiday should be celebrated exclusively by blacks.

King’s “moral imperative” quickly stretched far past the limits of the civil rights movement. The leaders of the gay and women’s rights movements were motivated by King’s actions and borrowed heavily from the tactics of the civil rights movement. Cesar Chavez, who now has his own California holiday, repeatedly praised King and other civil rights leaders for encouraging and providing aid to the farm worker and labor organizing battles.

The civil rights movement also had a major effect on other world struggles. It inspired activist priests in Latin America, students demonstrating against injustice in Europe and the oppressed in South Africa fighting against apartheid.

King was the first major leader to condemn the Vietnam War and American militarism. He gave impetus and credibility to the antiwar movement and almost certainly would have been the first to hit the barricades to protest the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The amnesia or ignorance of some about King’s impassioned opposition to all wars has been on permanent display in the virtual exorcising of King’s 1967 ground-breaking speech opposing the Vietnam War, and indeed all colonial and imperial wars. Talk about historical revisionism with a vengeance.

King’s moral vision and reach extended far beyond questions of war, peace and racial injustice. He saw that true democracy could never be realized without economic justice for the poor. He pounded away on the need to end class oppression and poverty. His Poor People’s March in 1968 was a flawed but sincere effort to bring the poor of all races together to seek economic justice.

The civil rights movement, increased civil liberties protections and expanded universal voting rights together produced a vast array of legal, social and educational programs that permanently transformed American society and enriched the lives of Americans of all races and income groups, not just blacks.

But when we have polls that persistently show a racial divide on just about any and every race-tinged issue from the Trayvon Martin slaying to the election of Obama, then it’s even easier to see why the King Holiday is not exempt from that divide. Though the King Holiday is not a black holiday, for far too many Americans it is.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a frequent MSNBC contributor, is an associate editor of New America Media.

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