Why I Work on MLK Day

I was glad to see that Martin Luther King’s birthday was made into a federal holiday, in spite of the grousing of the rabid racist right wing. I wasn’t very glad to see it touted as another big sale day for retailers, but I wasn’t surprised. You can see the irony in the ads for some retailers: the MLK Day white sale.

At my old job, only two of my colleagues took it as a personal day off; one was black, the other was white. I was surprised that a white guy would take MLK Day as a day off, until I learned that his wife was a schoolteacher and that was a day off for her, but I digress.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in contrast to his present-day social hero status, was very much a radical and very much hated by the white power structure while he was alive. In addition to helping end Jim Crow segregation, he protested against the Vietnam War, he protested in favor of labor rights and for the poor and impoverished. He shook the rotted racist social foundations and traditions and helped to break some of them, but there’s still a long way to go.

The main reason why I work on MLK Day is because I can. He and the members of the Civil Rights Movement struggled so that I could go to my local elementary, middle school and high school, and not have to be bussed far from home. I could go to college, any college, and not just an HBCU. I could get a professional job and not be restricted to menial labor or cooking or teaching and other similar jobs. Not that there’s anything wrong with those jobs; they are honest work, but anyone should be allowed to do whatever they want and not be limited because they have the “wrong” skin color.

Without the struggle and the gains, there would be no Ben Carson, MD, famed pediatric neurosurgeon, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ph.D., Director of the Hayden Planetarium, or Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, and untold thousands of professional people who are black.

There’s nothing wrong with service work on MLK Day. I am not sure that Martin Luther King himself would have a problem with it, but that was not what he was about, as activist Tim Wise notes (that is an entry for another day).

In short, it is my small way of being a radical and remembering what the Civil Rights struggle was about, not having one’s rights, choices and opportunities limited only because one has the “wrong” skin color or walks into the “wrong” restroom.