"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

MLK holiday: good intentions but bad idea?

There are few things I admire about Republicans but one is that they tend to shun identity politics. When some of the cheerleaders for Nikki Haley touted her as a woman, it was a line that many top Republicans didn't echo. She won anyway to become the new, very conservative Republican governor of South Carolina. Top Republicans were happy giving support based on the merits of her campaign.
"Merits" and "Republicans" are terms I don't usually tie together. But on this point I'm comfortable with Republicans (while watching my back of course).
Pretty soon we'll be marking a holiday that is tied with identity. It's the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. In a recent post I suggested that it's too bad our routine has to grind to a halt for the MLK observance so soon after Christmas/New Year's.
I was talking specifically about the UMM calendar. UMM goes quiet for too long in mid-winter, I wrote. It's so invigorating to see classes resume there, I'm discouraged at the sudden arrival of the MLK holiday. Really, aren't we all "holiday'd out?"
"Easter Monday" has become a holiday in some quarters. A Morris Post Office employee, now retired, once told me he was taken aback when getting a phone call asking if the P.O. would be open for "Easter Monday."
"At first I didn't even know what to say," he hold me.
Maybe someday we'll have "Super Bowl Monday." It might be nice for working out all that flatulence from the snacks devoured during the climactic NFL game.
But we're not there yet.
The late Barry Goldwater expressed skepticism about the MLK holiday when it was proposed. Goldwater was charming in his advanced years because of his candor - his unvarnished way of sharing his wisdom. Goldwater said that in the eyes of the average American, a new holiday would just mean "another Monday when the mail doesn't get delivered."
We're not exactly brimming with reverence.
None of these views have anything to do with race consciousness. I'll avoid the word racism.
MLK did exactly what needed to be done at that juncture of history. The Deep South had been a festering sore in American life. Our legal system had to turn the screws down there.
The Deep South had survived (outlasted, really) Reconstruction with enough leverage to suppress African Americans. For one thing, the North had grown weary of watching over the South and continuing a military type of occupation there. Cost was a factor. The North let go.
No way could the antebellum South be restored. But the South remained a nation apart in many respects. MLK brought the problems into focus and expedited Federal assertiveness to beat down Jim Crow. The legal system was the answer.
MLK and his colleagues were the valiant warriors. All this needs to be preserved in history books. But I find the holiday questionable. I could swear that last year, the media did not make as big a deal of it as previously. Watch closely this year.
At the risk of seeming blunt I'll assert that the MLK holiday has a condescending air. The young people of today seem wonderfully liberated from the past shackles of racial identity. What is "color" to them? Don't we all have "color?"
To the extent we acknowledge it, isn't there a virtual rainbow? We're hardly broken down into "Caucasians" and "African-Americans" anymore.
As a kid I often heard the term "negro" and it was quite accepted. I recall a quote in which Dwight Eisenhower used it. I won't paraphrase it here because it was rather impolitic. Eisenhower was a wise and prescient man but he probably held stereotypes.
I would lump him in with that former executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team who said something famously inappropriate. He attempted to generalize about African Americans but crossed a line. It's a line that today has little ambiguity. I suspect that he, like "Ike," was a fundamentally fair-minded individual. He reflected his generation.
These guys grew up in a time of much greater racial identity consciousness.
Young people today, typified by the brilliant youth on our U of M-Morris campus, might prefer acknowledging MLK without the holiday. Young people of color, a category that is blurring because of that expanding rainbow, might feel a little disconcerted.
"Gee, I should be thankful I have rights?"
They are told to be grateful to this iconic man, MLK, whose efforts led to people of color being accepted into mainstream society. We need to take a day off for this.
But increasingly, young people seem to be growing up oblivious to the boundaries suggested by identity politics. This is precisely the type of world that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted.
He would want a joyous celebration of humanity rather than reminders of the ugliness of the fight. MLK really led a movement to eradicate the last vestiges of the Civil War.
The movie "Mississippi Burning" with Gene Hackman is very instructive.
The MLK holiday resonates with bleakness. We see all that archival footage of conflicts - fire hoses were turned on people - and marches where many people got hurt. There were setbacks along with the progress.
The young people of today are enriched reading about all this in historical accounts. But it was a passing chapter like so many others that have advanced humanity. There was a time when women couldn't vote. There was a time when cigarette commercials were ubiquitous on TV.
We fight these battles and move on. We remember the skirmishes but we live in the present. Too much of the MLK holiday observance props up images of the unpleasantness.
Maybe us adults really can't believe that the youth of today are color-blind. We need to wear our racial enlightenment on our sleeves.
Maybe the media are slowly recognizing that the new enlightenment needn't be ballyhooed. Maybe after New Year's, we should all just roll up our sleeves and resume normal life for an extended time.
"I honor him in my heart," Tiger Woods once said of Jackie Robinson when explaining why he was a no-show for a memorial event.
Barry Goldwater was insightful. A pundit recently said of Jimmy Carter that "when you get to be 85 years of age, you start saying some funky stuff."
Carter might be a modern counterpart to Goldwater - an elder statesman inclined to say exactly what he thinks.
Goldwater talked about the mail not being delivered on Monday. Pretty soon we might not even get the mail delivered on Saturday - all year long! But the restructuring of the U.S. Postal Service is taking forever. Once or twice a year the media tease us with a story about some "proposal" for the elimination of Saturday delivery. But it never happens. The bureaucratic quicksand takes over.
I think the late Goldwater would be blunt and say "get the lead out."
Is it practical to say the MLK holiday has fulfilled its purpose and maybe should be retired? I'd like to see some voices raised for that.
I think the nation's youth would like to just move forward and not look back.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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