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America Still Ignores MLK Day

Twenty years after Ronald Reagan grudgingly made Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, less than 25 percent of the nation's businesses give their employees the day off.
 
 
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Twenty years after President Reagan grudgingly signed legislation that made Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday a national holiday, millions of Americans and most businesses still refuse to celebrate it. A survey by BNA Inc., a Washington D.C. business news publisher, in 2000 revealed that less than one-quarter of businesses give their workers a day off with pay. Worse, the number of firms that gave their employees a paid holiday plunged from the year before. The number of companies that acknowledge King's birthday pales in comparison to the next least celebrated holiday, Presidents Day. Fifty percent of companies give their workers that day off.

The deep shame is that while most businesses refuse to commemorate the King holiday by closing, sponsoring events, or simply acknowledging the day to their employees, they benefited as much if not more than any segment of American society from the 1960's civil rights battles. That struggle made diversity a watchword for business, expanded the purchasing power of blacks, minorities and women, and made it easier for major firms to advertise and promote their products and services in minority communities.

But businesses and millions of Americans don't ignore the King holiday solely out of greed, ignorance, or racism. They ignore it because they've swallowed the terrible myth that King was solely a black leader, that the civil rights movement was a movement by and for blacks, and that his holiday should be celebrated exclusively by blacks.

When King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, he staked out the moral high ground for the modern day civil rights movement. This made it possible, even obligatory, for most white Americans to condemn racial segregation as immoral and indefensible. Their moral outrage didn't stop with segregation. Vietnam war protesters publicly acknowledged King's brave and outspoken opposition to the war and militarism. They credited him with giving a huge boost to the anti-war movement.

The leaders of the gay, and women's rights movements were inspired by King's actions and borrowed heavily from the tactics of the civil rights movement. Cesar Chavez, a leader much deserving of praise and gratitude for his selfless contributions to peace and social justice, and who now has his own California holiday, often hailed 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 impact on other world struggles. It spurred students and workers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to oppose the military strongmen, dictators and demagogues in their countries. It inspired liberation priests in Latin America, student demonstrators in Europe, and anti-apartheid activists in South Africa to struggle against injustice.

During the furious battles over affirmative action in California and other states, many conservatives twisted the few stray remarks King uttered on affirmative action to claim that he supported their views. They aren't through distorting him. Black conservative Ward Connerly repeatedly invokes King's name in his current fight to get an initiative on the California ballot to bar state agencies from collecting racial data. In an even more perverse political irony, during the 1960's ultra-conservatives stoked the white backlash that King and the civil rights movement triggered, revived the moribund Republican Party in the South, and transformed themselves into a dominant force in national politics.

President Bush benefited mightily from this conservative resurgence. He swept the electoral votes of the Southern states. Without them his Democratic presidential opponent, Al Gore, would have easily won the White House. Even attorney general John Ashcroft, who drew intense fire from civil rights groups for his retrograde conservative views on civil rights, claims that King is on his most admired list. Former Senate Majority leader Trent Lott, who opposed the King holiday, now praises King as part of his mea culpa apology to blacks for his public tout of segregation.

But King's moral vision and reach extended far beyond the questions of war, peace and racial injustice. He also saw that true democracy could never be realized without economic justice for the poor. He hammered on the need to end class divisions and poverty. His Poor Peoples March in 1968 was a flawed but sincere effort to bring the poor of all races together in that common fight for economic justice.

The civil rights movement increased civil liberties protections, expanded universal voting rights and produced a vast array of legal, social and educational programs that permanently transformed American society and enriched the lives of millions of Americans of all races and income groups. This social and political remake of America was the direct by-product of the King-led civil rights movement.

Millions of Americans and most businesses will again ignore King's holiday this year. But what must not be ignored is that the civil rights movement made America a stronger and more democratic society, not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans. King will forever remain the eternal symbol of that change.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website. He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).