Dr. King’s Righteous Anarchy Lives On, Whether on His Birthday or Not
Why do we slot national holidays on one day of the week?
By Ed Goldman
Had he lived a blessedly long life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have celebrated his 92nd birthday—not today, which is the annual holiday in his honor, but three days ago, on the actual date the spiritual father of Black Lives Matter came into the world.
This date changing is one of our peculiar American obsessions, like combining the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln into one amorphous Presidents Day, on February 15. It has less to do with honoring these great men than obeying the dictates of organized labor, federal employees, the travel industry and corporate interests: If you keep holidays on a Monday, it’s less of an interruption in the work week and, presumably, productivity, allowing more people to take three-day weekends.
Martin Luther King, Jr. photographed by Marion S. Trikosko, 1964.
Ironically, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which made Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day and even Columbus Day come out on the same day of the week, the year that Dr. King was assassinated. Lincoln’s birthday got thrown into the mix along the way.
George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, though that was changed to February 22, 1732 when the Brits switched to using the all-new Gregorian calendar. Since Washington didn’t die until 1799, I’m guessing he didn’t care one way or the other. He didn’t mention it in his famous farewell address.
But Lincoln was born on February 12 in 1809, 10 years after Washington died. Even so, the head of a religious college I once interviewed told me that The Father of Our Country and The Great Emancipator were born only 10 days apart. This fellow also told me he believed the planet Earth was only a few thousand years old, so it’s possible he was simply among the chronologically challenged. Or thought “carbon dating” meant going to dinner-and-a movie with twins.
Among the notable people who died in 1968, the year I turned 18, no one’s death affected me more than those of Dr. King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. They were simply too young. King was 39, Kennedy was 42, and both had too much left to do.
Back then, they seemed close enough to my own age for me to anoint them with a relevance my parents’ generation didn’t provide, though I greatly admired them and the lives they led in the times they lived them. My dad was 52 and my mom 51 in 1968. They were members of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” which I always thought was a nice tribute but pretty fatuous. There had been a lot of generations before whose accomplishments were both momentous and historic. I’m hoping we’ll see a great generation again, though time’s running out on its being my own.
The other people I admired who died that year were Helen Keller (born in 1880), Upton Sinclair, who made it to 90, and John Steinbeck (born in 1902). For these three, unlike King and Kennedy, their futures lay behind them: each had accomplished great but finite things, and would now belong to the generations to come, who’d alternately worship, deconstruct and rebuild their accomplishments.
No one has successfully messed with the legacy of Keller, who was born blind and deaf. But through her writing, lectures and a brilliant play based on her childhood communication breakthrough—and the teacher who effected it, the partially blind Anne Sullivan, title hero of “The Miracle Worker”—Keller became an eye- and ear-opener for the rest of the world. She remains a personal hero of mine.
Sinclair might have tarnished his own legend by taking his deserved fame for writing “The Jungle,” the magnificent, appropriately stomach-churning exposé of the meat-packing industry, and using it to become a would-be politico: he ran for governor of California in 1934 as the Democratic party nominee. He didn’t win—though I suppose that nine years later, he could have consoled himself when he won the Pulitzer prize for his novel, “Dragon’s Teeth.”
As for Steinbeck, for those of us who marvel at his work—the breadth of his subjects, the heart and the deceptively simple writing style—it continues to confound and annoy me when his artistry is dissected as being somehow not “literary” enough. I think he was a greater writer than Hemingway, whose work I happen to love, and certainly superior to Normal Mailer, Gore Vidal and both Thomas Wolf and Tom Wolfe, all of whose books I also admire immensely. But none was a John Steinbeck.
Speaking of books, Kennedy was still an open one when he was killed moments after winning the California Presidential primary. To this day, people wonder if he’d have gone on to win the presidency and what he might have accomplished.
King’s legacy was more assured because he’d already been a fearless, fatalistic lightning rod for civil rights. In retrospect, his life sped by like a movie you run too quickly. You wonder what he’d have become as an elder Black statesman: Would he have diminished the impact of the late Congressman John Lewis, who carried forward King’s torch of righteous anarchy—or would the two, along with Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, among others, have formed an unbeatable political coalition that won elective races they’d have supervised the casting of?
We can only imagine what Dr. King’s triumphs and setbacks would have been had he lived, and the perseverance with which he’d have continued to fulfill everything he and we hoped for when he told the nation and the world—during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963—that he had a dream. Whether we recognize his greatness on his actual birthday is, I suppose, irrelevant. Dreams don’t pay attention to calendars.