January 17, 2002
A Non-Optional Holiday
Why we should celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Back in 1990, while working as an assistant at a film production company, my daily mail chores acquainted me with the postal worker across the street. One Friday, as we said our goodbyes, I said, "See you Monday," when she corrected me: Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
I didn't know if my office would be closed, I said.
Her eyes flashed as she said she would take the holiday even if it weren't given to her, because "it's our holiday."
In that flash, I saw the different worlds we inhabited in the same country, my skin color having allowed me to forget it. I knew our meant black. I wanted to tell her it was my holiday, too, but I didn't know if it was. Back at the office, I learned that it was an optional holiday -- whoever wanted to take the day off could, but the office would be open. I told my boss that I would take the holiday. I later learned from a co-worker that the boss was annoyed with me, that in her opinion "the only person who should have the day off is the receptionist -- the only black employee."
I didn't know how to deal with that remark without getting fired, so I kept my mouth shut and took the day off. In reality, her remark wasn't much different from the nice postal worker across the street. And though the exchanges took place 12 years ago, just last week, a friend said his office didn't have the day off, probably because "there are no black people at our company." This from someone who works at a hip, immensely successful production company whose management would never consider themselves racist. The misconception pervades our consciousness more than 15 years after the holiday was established.
The Bureau of National Affairs annually tracks a sample of about 475 companies to see how many observe the holiday since it was first made official in 1986. That number is currently about 28 percent, which may yet be skewed because it includes banking institutions, which take all federal holidays off. According to Steve Klein, research associate at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the private sector has been lagging, especially the non-unionized companies.
Here's the response I wish I'd given to that CFO: "Only blacks should observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, just like only relatives of departed soldiers should have the day off for Memorial Day, and only presidents with beards or powdered wigs should celebrate President's Day."
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is certainly the most relevant national holiday to my experience. While I enjoy the whole Christmas vibe as much as the next Jew, it doesn't go deeper than crying over yet another screening of "It's a Wonderful Life."
New Year's Day apparently celebrates the hangover. President's Day is a white sale; Memorial Day is the beginning of summer; Fourth of July is a barbecue with fireworks, hopefully without stray bullets; Labor Day marks the end of summer; Columbus Day is a bastion of controversy -- how do you discover a place that's already populated? (Hey everyone, I just discovered Carmel!), and Thanksgiving is a big family bingefest.
Now I'm not trying to bah humbug the holidays; they're great occasions to get together with loved ones and give thanks that we don't have to go to work. But, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a chance to honor the life of a man who gave everything to the goal of equality and to reflect on our progress as a country toward that goal. The Rev. King and his colleagues took this country out of the "darkie" ages and began the work of ending apartheid in this country.
The fact that people consider it a black holiday, not worthy of taking the day off otherwise, is a big signifier that we're a long way from King's dream, as well as a slap in the face of all those who stood beside him. I'm very proud that many of those who walked and worked with King were Jewish. I mourn for the Jewish men and women who died alongside their black brothers and sisters, simply for trying to register people to vote. They reinforce my belief that it is in our cultural makeup as Jews to care about the rights of the oppressed, whatever their religion or ethnicity. At least it used to be.
We have the opportunity to celebrate a man who stood for the rights of every American, every human being, who remained standing peacefully with faith and compassion, despite brutal opposition most of us couldn't even imagine, on our own soil (from -- let's be topical about it -- domestic terrorists), until he was cut down. I can't imagine a more valuable way to spend a Monday. It doesn't matter what you do with the free time: Have a family bingefest, go to a sale, play softball, celebrate not having to work. But please, take the day off. It's our holiday.
A one-page text of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is available with commentaries drawn from Jewish sources at www.hillel.org .