Today (January 21, 2013) is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. Nary a word is heard about it, at least this morning, up here in Canada. Time was when it would get a headline in a newscast. Or a full story in the newspaper. But it’s eclipsed by, a historical backdrop to, Barack Obama’s inauguration for a second – and last – term as President of the United States of America.
A lot of people believe that Martin Luther King Jr., Day marks the date of his assassination. Or his birth. January 21 is neither. It is a “floating” holiday set for “the third Monday of January” each year nearest to King’s birthday of January 15. Nearly a week off. King was murdered on April 4, 1968. He was 39 years old.
On CBC Radio’s Q this morning, the host’s intro for January 21 is about “national hug day.” Elsewhere, nary mention in the hourly newscasts or articles on news web sites about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Has Dr. King’s legacy faded so much?
Not for me. That day, when a gunman killed Martin Luther King, Jr. at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, will stay with me forever. I remember the shock wave that rippled through the United States and then around the world. I felt the anger took over at an America that could murder a man of peace preaching equality and dignity. I remember the response in the sound of sirens and tanks on the streets near my uncle’s home where I stayed that spring.
I remember walking with my cousin downtown. A couple of teenagers alone on a dark street in a changing neighborhood. Him blonde. Me dark. That group of young Black men crossing the street toward us. Menacing. The rattle of a chain in my cousin’s hand, a signal to back off. I didn’t notice my cousin pick up that chain but I’m glad he did. It’s rattle a sign, a hope, a warning.
I’m not white, I thought to myself but wanted to shout. He was my hero too, y’know. I was changed, challenged, by his words. I believed in him just as much. I was angry as well. But it wasn’t a time for talk and discussion, not out there on the streets. The anger plugged ears and numbed us into taking sides for and against.
It was a lesson that when hope is violently crushed, more violence is almost inevitable. It was also a lesson that words are dangerous, can change people and even societies.
We weren’t listening back then. The last thing we wanted was a hug.