Martin Luther King, Jr, Day is not a day for remembrance
Today, January 18, 2010, is a Federal holiday, held in honor of the Civil Rights advocate Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. It is one of eleven Federal holidays, the other ten being New Year's, Inauguration Day (when applicable), Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Three of these days are cultural (New Year's, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), three are related to war (Memorial, Independence, and Veteran's day), two to foundational fathers (Presidents and Columbus days), and two to Civil Rights struggles (MLK and Labor days). It is unusual in that it recognizes a single individual rather than the entire movement—Labor day honors all workers, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day seems initially to only honor just one of the Civil Rights leaders. While it is true that Dr. King is probably the most influential (and definitely most remembered) leader of the Civil Rights movement, it is important to remember the he was assassinated in 1968—after the passage of the Civil Rights act of 1965, but a decade before the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act. And though history may seem to show that the Sixties are the defining decade of the Civil Rights movement, it surely must also show that the Sixties didn't fix everything.
We have this notion in America that the Civil Rights movement is historical—it is something we study, it is something we have a museum dedicated to. This is an utter fabrication. Inequality in America is still widespread. Though we have, for the first time, an African-American President, we also have just one African-American in the Senate (Roland Burriss, the controversial appointment to fill President Obama's empty Senatorial seat). To this day, there have only been six African-American Senators. There have been two African-American Justices of the Supreme Court, and, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one Hispanic. There is still racial inequality in education, in prison, and economically.
And that's assuming that Civil Rights is just about race. Women are still, to some extent, marginalized in politics. And, as a gay man, I am subject to some of the few existing constitutionally viable discriminatory laws. Whatever your rationale is for opposing Gay Rights, it is fundamentally denying a right to someone—exactly the problem that has always plagued marginalized groups in America. You may not think that I deserve the right to marry a man and adopt a child, you may know it to be a fact. But 100 years ago, people knew for a fact that African-Americans were inferior and thought that women did not deserve the right to vote. To say that no one believes these things today would be false, but to say that to believe them publicly is to cast oneself in a light of ignorance and hatred would be true.
And yet, it is a lesson that no one ever seems to learn—you may deny people in this country fundamental rights, you may enforce against them an increasing number of oppressive laws, but they will fight, and they will win, and history will view you as hateful, oppressive, bigots.
By celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., Day as a remembrance of his service to the minorities of this country, you are acknowledging that the fight for Civil Rights is over. It isn't, and it never will be. Don't just go to a vigil for Dr. King. Keep alive his message by fighting oppression everywhere—discrimination is still enshrined in law in this country.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'
Let's help make them equal.
See also my post on the Civil Rights Museum