Despite efforts to dilute and trivialize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the only national holiday celebrating a people’s freedom movement, the people once again rescued and defended “The Dream” in actions spanning the United States.
From the thousands who took to the streets of San Antonio, to observances at tiny Campbell College in Edwards, Miss., the multiracial U.S. working class and their children took a day “on” instead of a day off, breathing new life into King’s dream of peace, racial justice, unity and prosperity for all.
Texas led the day as 100,000 marched in San Antonio behind banners reading, “MLK lived for peace, the military lives for war.”
Controversy had simmered for weeks when the city’s MLK Commission invited the nearby Air Force base to conduct a military “flyover” above the march. Not even the fact that the fighter squadron was heir to the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the first military unit of African American pilots, could dampen San Antonians’ anger at the hypocrisy.
“Shame, shame on you, MLK Commission,” they roared, competing with the noise of the aircraft. City Councilwoman Patti Radle joined in the storm of protest against the flyover. She held her sign up high: “Keep King’s message clear: Love, understanding, nonviolence.”
The Rev. James Meeks, an Illinois state senator and executive director of Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said he had never seen a King observance “like you have going on in San Antonio.” In his keynote speech at the rally ending the three-hour march, Meeks said, “Black people only own 2 percent of the nation’s wealth. African Americans are in a deep hole in America. If we start focusing on white America as the opposition, we’ll never make it.”
The initiator of the bill that created the holiday, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), remarked, “I’m pleased that it hasn’t deteriorated to another bargain day at the mall or a shopping day.” Conyers introduced his bill in 1968. While all government offices are closed for the 20-year-old King holiday, only a third of businesses recognize it by giving their workers a day off.
In Denver, 30,000 braved icy streets for the city’s “marade,” a combination march and parade that started 24 years ago when the fight to establish the holiday was in full swing.
In San Francisco, citing the growing number of Americans without health care and the deepening income divide, Mayor Gavin Newsome told thousands that this was a day to commit to doing the important work that still needs to be done.
Young people defined King Day, reading their poetry in Columbia, S.C., singing civil rights songs in Butte, Mont., holding up their art work in Lawrence, Kan., and honoring a teacher of nonviolence in St. Louis.
At Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. King’s birthplace, Mayor Shirley Franklin called on the audience to “comprehend the full message of Dr. King” by helping the young and the old and the poor and demanding increased federal funding for the victims of Katrina.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., election activists kick-started a voter registration and “voter restoration” drive aimed, among other things, at enabling those who have served time in prison to regain their right to vote.
In Lakeland and Jacksonville, Fla., Philadelphia and New Orleans tens of thousands of volunteers built homes, picked up litter and debris and repaired playgrounds.
In Durham, N.C. singer/actor Harry Belafonte, who marched with Dr. King and is marching still, drew frequent cheers as he recounted his recent trip to Venezuela. Belafonte praised the government of President Hugo Chávez and thanked Venezuela for providing low-cost heating oil to residents of the Bronx, Boston and the state of Maine. He condemned President Bush as a “tyrant” and his administration as “terrorist.” Comparing the far-right slime machine that has heaped criticism on him to the attacks on King, he said, “I’ve been here before. We didn’t stop then. We are not stopping now.”
Denise Winebrenner Edwards, Rosita Johnson and Vivian Weinstein contributed to this story.