Dr. Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday, one that several states — Virginia included — attempted to ignore for too many years.
“Representing the point of view that I do — as a brown American from a lower-class background, with the good fortune today to walk the halls of one of America’s most elite institutions as a teacher of philosophy — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is taken to represent a triumph,” says Chris Lebron, assistant professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Yale University. “But here is an uncomfortable truth: It is a triumph of acceptable minimums rather than full respect for those who continue to wait for Dr. King’s dream to become reality.”
Lebron is also author of “The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time,” a sobering look at how far we have not come in achieving anything close to racial equality in our time.
He adds, in an essay in Sunday’s New York Times:
I think it goes without question that not only has the idea of a post-racial America proven to be a myth, but that racial inequality remains a tragic mark on the character of this otherwise great nation — a nation founded on respect not only for what persons hope to accomplish in life but for what they are: humans owed rights, liberty and respect because of their humanity. The equal recognition of humanity has only intermittently taken hold with respect to black lives. The closeness of Emmett Till and Eric Garner attest to that.
I’ve seen too much racism in my life, as a young student in Prince Edward County at a time when the local school leaders and board of supervisors shut down the public schools to avoid integration to covering racial unrest as a reporter following the the assassination of Dr. King in 1968 and the years and decades that followed.
As a youngster who crawled on his hands and knees through woods at night to take a photo of a Ku Klux Klan meeting near Farmville, VA, I could see the hate that drove racists.
As a white American I cannot pretend to know or fully understand the fear that blacks felt as they were treated as second-class residents of our country.
When I left The Roanoke Times in 1969, I worked for 12 years as a reporter, columnist and photographer for The Alton Telegraph, based in the Southern Illinois town where James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. King was born.
I’ve photographed and document racism over the years, covering unrest throughout the South and on the streets of our nation’s Capitol. In 1971, I photographed both the rallies and protests in St. Louis when that city was one of the first to recognize King’s life in a holiday.
It would take another 12 years for President Ronald Regan to sign the proclamation making it a national holiday. Reagan, ironically, was an opponent of the holiday. President George H.W. Bush would set the third Monday as the day of the national holiday.
In Virginia, it took another 17 years for The Old Dominion to officially recognize it as an “official” holiday but insisted it be part of a four-day weekend that includes “Lee-Jackson Day,” to recognize Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
That action created a state four-day holiday with Lee-Jackson Day observed on Fridays and Dr. King’s Day on Monday.
The holiday, however, is not widely recognized or observed. Many businesses and schools do not close. Floyd County public schools observe the holiday and are closed. The Courthouse was closed for both Lee-Jackson Day on Friday and Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday. Same for county offices and the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library.
In what some may say is the true tradition of a holiday in this nation, there are “Martin Luther King Day” sales in stores. A new movie, “Selma” opened on January 9th and examines the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Alabama march to promote voting rights.
But today, 50 years later, do we really have equal rights, in America?
Something to think about if you observe this national holiday in the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(The film clip above was produced in 2012 to illustrate the issue or racism. The song, “Black or White” was written by the late Micheal Jackson and was sung for this use by After Jack of Ferrum at the Floyd County Store. Many of the photos are from my shots over the years along with others from archives. The film clip of the Selma-to-Montgomery march was provided by The National Archives.)