Some Americans have a day off on this Monday to honor the life and efforts of Martin Luther King Jr..
Some, because the holiday is not celebrated universally.
The third Monday of January falls this year on the date of King’s birth (Jan. 15, 1929). St. Louis became one of the initial cities to honor his birth in 1971. I lived in the St. Louis metro area that year and remember the debate over honoring the man who meant so much to the civil rights movement. I worked at The Telegraph, in Alton, across the Mississippi from St. Louis, and the birthplace of James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King in Memphis on April. 4, 1968, almost 50 years ago.
President Ronald Reagan signed the law making on Nov. 2, 1983 Jan. 20 a federal holiday to honor King but it would take another three years before it would be observed. President George H. W. Bush proclaimed Martin Luther King Jr. Day be recognized on the third Monday of January in 1992 but it would take eight more years of debate, controversy and delay by several states before Utah became the last to recognize the holiday.
Virginia delayed honoring King’s birthday because it conflicted with days celebrated in the Old Dominion to remember the efforts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to keep slaves and racism in place and plantation owners living large on the sweat and toil of those they owned. Virginia resolved the situation by making the third weekend of January a four-day holiday with Lee-Jackson Day on Friday and Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.
As a Southerner, I cannot and will not take time to honor those who fought against the country that I love. As an American, I honor the memory of Martin Luther King. As a reporter for The Roanoke Times, I covered protests and racial strife in Roanoke on April 4, 1968, and the days that followed. I also covered protests in Memphis during that period.
For me, racism became personal as an elementary school student in Farmville, VA, in the late 1950s The Virginia General Assembly passed the Stanley Plan, a series of law to carry out “Massive Resistance” against efforts to integrate public schools. Former governor and then U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd led the charge to keep white and black students apart.
Prince Edward County’s racist school board, which included members of the Ku Klux Klan, shut down the public schools and, with help from the General Assembly, used a program of “tuition grants” to fund students in an all-white private school, called Prince Edward Academy.
As an 11-year-old, I had to attend that white private school and listen to racist tirades from teachers and students. It sickened me. One night, I crawled through the bushes and hid in a forest to photograph a Klan meeting and used the photo to go with a school essay that brought beatings from classmates but also attention when newspapers began to publish the essay and photo.
By age 12, I knew I wanted to become a newspaper reporter and that I wanted to use the position to oppose racism, slavery and bigotry. By 13, my family left Prince Edward County and moved to Floyd, where the schools were open and integrated.
Sadly, the racism that gripped the South and kept public schools closed in Prince Edward County for five years, continues today. Dormant white supremacist groups rose from the dirt during Barack Obama’s presidency. As America’s first African-American president, many of us hoped it would bring unity to divided America. Instead, it revived hate and racism from those who believed that people of different skin tones and beliefs were somehow inferior.
Those of different heritages and beliefs should be equal in America, not but ignorance and stupidity drives those who use racism to inflame America. Our current president uses the fears of the ignorant to put him in the White House, where his racial epithets, hate and bigotry dominates his acrimonious actions.
Today, I honor Martin Luther King Jr. for his efforts to make America a better place. He died because of his quest. I also take this day to mourn what has all allowed to make America a land of hatred, racism and intolerance. I lived among, and worked to expose, racists as a student in Prince Edward County and over the last 50 years as a newspaperman.
That fight, sadly, is not over. The battle continues.
Today, many of us take time to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a man who worked to make America great. We should also honor his memory to fight against those who work against America to serve their own needs, their own greed and their own racism.
The war continues. It must, for the sake of our nation.