King Day a Golden Prompt for Writers

            Martin Luther King Jr. Day and his legacy are a writer’s dream because of the controversy, the spiritual quests, the meaning or myths, and the wide spread accomplishments for all people. We quote his powerful quotes that fulfill our spirit, and we relish the magnificent triumphs, and we’re proud of his leadership. For every King Day, we’ve celebrated with the King family, with citizens around the country, and with memories of his poignant messages. We replay historical movies linked to the Civil Rights Movement, some reminders of bloody injuries and death of foot soldiers, imprisonments, police brutality, and marches. And we never forget the “I Have a Dream” speech, the cornerstone of the King’s fight for freedom and the challenge for change. Broadcasters, churches, and other organizations replay that speech repeatedly and rightfully so say the masses.  For years columnists, editorial writers, bloggers, even novelists and non-fiction writers use this golden prompt, and I joined the chorus. After so many years, we’ve strived to stretch our creativity and imagination for a new focus though the story never loses its meaning or its rhythm. And poets, of course, wouldn’t miss the golden opportunity to pen about this wordsmith who was so quotable that his famous quotations fill entire books.

            If King – who worked for all Americans, could return, he’d likely be humble and happy about the recognition given him. As we say at these celebrations, the movement is unfinished, and the slain leader would likely agree. I don’t know what he’d expect of us, but I know for sure that if he rose from the grave and stood on the “mountaintop” and say, "Enough. Let's get to work." He’d be appalled at the unfinished work or the changes – school integration for one -- that appear to have backfired on us. (Too many central city schools are still segregated, and loud voices clearly criticize public school failure to educate the poorest of children)

I  have some ideas about what King might articulate about our conditions today.  His son, Martin Luther King III, said the Arizona shootings that left six dead and twelve injuries, including U. S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, show that King’s work must continue. Not only was this a shameful tragedy and a national outrage, it delves deeply into the core values of freedom. The compassionate, hard-working civil rights leader would certainly agree, and he’d likely pull off his jacket and delve deeply into making change.

 And I believe the drum major for peace and justice would be shocked and appalled at the level of violence in our nation and across the world. He’d work for resolution regarding gun control outside the periphery of hunting and military use. And he’d want to know what could be done about restrictions for people with mental illness? What about our other pressing needs?

 I lost sleep pondering how to write these words with compassion and understanding, avoiding blame. Wouldn’t he have something to say about how we spend his birthday?  And what about the need for unanswered challenges. I know a thing or two since I’ve devoted most of my adult life writing about social issues. Here’s my list:

  • Couldn’t children do more than play, shop, etc.? Why can’t they visit the library for studying that extends teachers’ responsibilities?
  • Even after school integration, why can’t Johnny and Jane read? If they don’t have books at home, why aren’t they going to the library?

Why do these King Day celebrations praise King for the work he’s done but stop short of proactivity? Why not extend work on social issues for 365 days a year? We don’t need a holiday to work for change for all Americans. Of course, I support the holiday and its value to children because it extends their education, and grownups get to talk about how wonderful the icon of justice was.

  • Where are those leaders who must work on citizens’ behalf?  For the most part, leaders emerge but isn’t anyone influential and powerful enough to step up to take the challenge for change.
  • Do students even know the guaranteed freedoms included in the Bill of Rights and that December 15 honors it? Those rights include: Freedom of religion, Freedom of Assembly, to keep and bear arms, Freedom of speech, Freedom of the press, Protection for those accused of crimes. (The most controversial right – to  bear arms – is a Herculean issue)
  • Why are there more black men in prison than college? Does a lack of money and poor education play a major role in unequal justice? The Sentencing Project based in our Capitol says so.
  • Why are known drug house sitting in neighborhoods and destroying the fabric of the American dream? Why have gangs, drug addicts and drug sellers continued to terrorize law-abiding citizens?
  • Why are pedophiles allowed to run amuck and destroy innocent children’s lives and/or kill them? 
  • Why do those whose lives are not affected look askance, sweeping trash under doorsteps, or staying stuck in denial?
  • Last but not least important, the Bible says the poor shall always be with us, but why do we have a poverty crisis worse than during the civil rights years. Child poverty has been reportedly at crisis level in a land of plenty.

Well, one thing we know. King won’t be back, but one thing I know with certainty – denial won’t make these issues disappear. America needs help or, better yet, a miracle, and more than songs, speeches national leader on the ground to work with communities and a yearly celebration of his memory, not saying that it shouldn’t occur every year. I can only hope that we will wake up one morning and say: By God, we need a King celebration every day, and that is about continuing his legacy of work. President and First Lady Michelle Obama have the right action when they ask Americans to participate in community service on King Day and at other times. I hope that one of these days, our collective voices rise up and say, “Let’s do something other than celebrate King’s legacy.”


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