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Home Opinion Martin Luther King changed white America, too

Martin Luther King changed white America, too


With Monday’s dismissal of schools and closure of local and state government offices will come the obligatory objections that Martin Luther King Jr. doesn’t deserve his own holiday. Some ask why, in a community that is 98 percent white, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day honored? Why are schools with a 98 percent white student body closed for this day?

The obvious answer is that MLK Day is just as important in white America as it is in black America. Because while Dr. King was improving black America, he was doing the same for white America.

By now, in 2014, most of us cannot recall the days of segregation. Many of us weren’t even alive in those days. And I daresay that there are none among us who actively pursued the shameful traditions of a segregated America. So this isn’t a white apologist column, because I have nothing to apologize for. But it does us well to not forget our past. And to not forget those who had the courage to stand up and make things right.

Dr. King paid a price for his personal conviction that he should become the flag-bearer for equality. He was harassed by state and federal authorities alike, mocked by many of his fellow Americans, jailed on more than one occasion and, finally, assassinated. In a society where most of us want nothing more than to be left alone to our individual pursuits of happiness, Dr. King was one of the exceptional few who was willing to give up his own personal ambitions and dreams, and the ambitions and dreams of his family, for the ambitions and goals of a much greater cause.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Dr. King is the only man who ever lived, besides Jesus Christ, to have his own holiday in America. (Columbus has a day on the calendar, but it is observed by few.) Certainly there are many who deserve their own day. Lincoln shares a day with America’s great presidents who came before him. Our forefathers who risked their lives to sign the Declaration of Independence share a day. The tens of thousands who paid the ultimate sacrifice to gain and preserve America’s freedom share a day. The millions of Americans’ whose back-breaking labor built this great nation share a day.

But perhaps in that bit of irony is a bit of symbolism. All those other holidays we celebrate, we celebrate groups of Americans who stood together for a greater good — service men and women who marched into battle despite facing hopeless odds, presidents who dedicated their lives to leading the nation through perilous times, America’s founders who dared to risk it all to stand defiantly against the Queen.

For the most part, Martin Luther King Jr. stood alone.

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Oh, he had plenty of help, to be sure. Without Rosa Parks and her courageous act of civil disobedience in Montgomery, Ala., would Dr. King have even had the courage to take up the fight for civil rights? There’s a debate to be had there. Certainly Parks is viewed historically as King’s inspiration.

But without Dr. King, would the civil rights movement of the 1960s have ever sparked into a reshaping of American policy? There’s a debate to be had there, too.

Sure, mistreatment of black Americans would have eventually ceased. America’s innate moral compass would have eventually caused us to come to our senses. Many white Americans were becoming fed up with the practices of segregation by the time Dr. King delivered his inspirational “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, just as many white Americans were becoming fed up with the institution of slavery and it would have been doomed even if Lincoln had never signed the Emancipation Proclamation and even if the Union had not prevailed in the Civil War.

But how long might it have taken? In retrospect, it’s unthinkable that it took us a full 100 years after the Civil War to decide that black American children should be able to drink from the same water fountains and attend the same schools as our own children. It’s unthinkable that we fought — and died — in wars to bring personal liberties to foreign peoples that we were unable to grant some of our own.

Perhaps Dr. King was merely the most visible promoter of an idea whose time had come. Perhaps if Dr. King had emerged on the national stage in the 1920s or the 1930s he would have found himself fighting a battle that could not be won.

But it’s hard to dip into the timeless audio archives today and relive King’s stirring speeches and not imagine that he could have brought down the walls of racial divide no matter in which era he stood up to fight.

I’ve always felt that the answer to whether Dr. King deserves his own holiday is the answer to a very simple question: Are there any among us who would choose to go back to the days of segregation? Are there any among us who would willingly walk up to a fellow American and tell him or her that he must leave the restaurant because his skin color makes him unwelcome? Are there any among us who would tell our kids they can’t play football because a black kid wants to play on the same team?

If the answer to those questions is no, and I’m quite certain it is, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day absolutely deserves to be observed — and observed in white America.

■ Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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