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The Folly of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Posted: 01/15/09 01:27 PM ET

When most people think about Martin Luther King Jr. Day, images of the white dove of peace, silver scales for social justice and a rainbow coalition of clasped hands come to mind. When I think about the holiday, I see the grim apparel of shackles and chains African Americans were once forced to wear. To me the national celebration of Dr. King's birth is a symbol of the continued bondage of African Americans.

I acknowledge Dr. King's heroism. I often wonder, for instance, whether I would have had the courage to march against segregation in Jim Crow Birmingham, as he did. I wonder if I could have mustered the composure after my arrest there to write an eloquent essay from my jail cell.

Yet, up until recently when I had a full-time, 9-5 job, I made a point of working that third Monday in January, even though it was a paid union holiday.

I also acknowledge the heroic tenacity of those who made our nation recognize Dr. King's contributions to our country. From start to finish, it took more than a generation -- 32 years -- and the effort of literally millions of people for this country to unanimously tip its hat to Dr. King's greatness.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first proposed a few days after his assassination in 1968. The first official celebration as a federal holiday occurred in 1986. The third Monday of January was designated so that his celebration wouldn't be too close to the juggernauts of Christmas and New Year's Day. However, it was not until 2000 that every state in the union recognized the holiday by name and made it a paid state observance.

But what have black Americans gained by this recognition? Has commemoration by the government, federal or otherwise, reduced the number of black people in prison, or provided better equipped schools in underprivileged black neighborhoods? Has it helped gain equal housing or equal pay for equal work? (You might also ask if Barack Obama's presidency will accomplish any of that.)

Has making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day even encouraged other Americans -- white, east Asian, south Asian, Hispanic or "other" -- to respect African Americans more?

Arguably the federal holiday is a glaring reminder of how many black Americans don't respect themselves.

Seeking government recognition of Dr. King's birthday was like being transported to the time when most black people had to ask "Massa" for permission to do just about anything. Celebrating it on a government sanctioned day is akin to asking "Massa" to control and validate black reality. If black people truly felt Dr. King had more impact on this nation than many American presidents -- and he did -- why try to persuade mainstream America to agree? Why not just take the day off?

Harriet Tubman is quoted as having said, "I freed thousands of slaves; I could have freed more if they knew they were slaves." Tubman's words can apply to many contemporary African Americans.

Some black people, even those who agree with me (and I'm sure there are many who do not), would say it's now too late. For better or for worse, Dr. King's birthday is an official holiday -- fully sanctioned by the government. Even those who call it Martin Luther "Coon" Day get the day off. You can't squeeze toothpaste back into the tube.

But I have a bold proposal: What if black Americans recognize Dr. King's birthday on the actual day of his birth? What if they took a personal day or a sick day, or whatever, on January 15th?

The idea occurred to me in late 2005 when the New York City transit union went on strike. I was impressed by the silence in the city -- no rumbling subways, no screeching buses. Of course, there are white members of the union, but it is overwhelmingly black.

And I began to wonder, what if that silence resulted from all blacks, not just black transit union members, making a collective decision -- without asking anyone's permission -- to take a period of time to evaluate and exercise their freedom.

Chattel slavery in America may be long gone. And while Obama's presidency might seem to signal a new era in which black people are accepted, life is not only about "acceptance."

Tubman's words still resonate with me as they have every January for decades. Perhaps one day black men and women will not conveniently celebrate Dr. King's birthday on the third Monday of January. Perhaps in time they will celebrate Dr. King on the day he was actually born and shout shout, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!"