From A Sacred Day To A Shopping Day

How long before a holiday goes from honoring a great man to getting a great deal on a new refrigerator, treadmill, or winter jacket?

Originally Posted January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the only holiday that I’ve personally witnessed go from a hotly debated campaign for acceptance to a day where shoppers cram into the malls looking for great sales on clothes and furniture. This is the case with many holidays. Columbus Day or Memorial Day or Presidents Day. Was it always this way?

In the case of Presidents Day, I remember when there were two holidays. Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday. They were separated by a week that coincided with winter break for my school. This was already established as a big shopping week, even though I’m pretty sure that was not the initial intention.

A combined Presidents Day was originally proposed to be a legitimate day when we’d honor all Presidents, but it was not widely accepted. It wasn’t until the almighty retailers and advertisers united that Presidents Day came to be. Of course it was really just a renaming of Washington’s Birthday (Lincoln was left out in the cold).

But in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I remember the debates about whether this should even be a federal holiday. I remember the very public push back from North Carolina and Arizona, whose governing officials were against the holiday.

Reagan makes it official

Sacred Day
The holiday was first made official when President Reagan held a ceremonial signing in the White House Rose Garden in 1983. Despite not being widely accepted across all states, it was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986. Overall acceptance would not happen until South Carolina adopted the holiday in 2000.

By that time, every state realized that celebrating the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. was in fact a good thing and opposing was just plain racist and stupid.

As acceptance of the holiday became more inevitable thanks to vocal voters, some states tried to offer a compromise by coming up alternate names. Calling it ‘Human Rights Day’ or ‘Civil Rights Day’ as some states did was not too horrible, but Virginia took the ignorance cake by combining it with the celebration of the leaders of the Confederate Army calling it ‘Lee-Jackson-King Day’. A concept that still makes my head spin.

After 25 years, the day had been accepted as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in every state. However, it’s still considered an optional holiday that many corporations do not choose to recognize. This is something that may never change considering the lack of care given to time off for workers by those same corporations. This isn’t a debate of political or religious standing, but one of simple greed.

For many, this day has become one of prayer. For others it is simply a day to remember. I for one am not a religious person. So it’s not often I use the word ‘sacred’ to describe a day. However, I find myself in deep thought about the man and his words. And Sacred is the only word I can think of.

Shopping Day 2011
In less than three decades, we went from trying to win acceptance of a day that would celebrate a man of peace, to this:

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, reminds us, about the fighting spirit of the King for freedom, dignity and equality of all races. So, to celebrate the day and to give honor to The King Martin, Sears has outburst some hot deals and coupons on almost everything.

Seriously? Is this what the words of one of the greatest men of peace have boiled down to? Hot deals and coupons? Am I the only one offended by ads like this?

As a nation, we tend to easily lose sight of the true meaning of things. After all, we have long accepted days that were set aside to honor great men and women as a time to shop for furniture. I’m sure the drafters of Memorial Day did not intend for it to be a weekend of shopping, binge drinking, and sunburn.

And what if we make 9/11 a holiday? Can we expect the same?

I know, I know … I’m a cynic and not everyone has lost sight of what this day is about. I understand that. I’m just afraid that, over time, they might. So on this day, take some time to remember this great man and these great words:

I Have A Dream
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from the steps of Lincoln Memorial. (photo: National Park Service)

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

— Martin Luther King, Jr. (August 28, 1963)

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