Postcard from America

One of my long term projects is called 'Un-American Activities' – a big part of which is collecting snapshots and postcards such as this one. It was produced to discredit the civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Below is a short essay I wrote about King…

Today is ‘Martin Luther King Jr Day’ in the USA. The creation and history of this Federal Holiday , shows that more than half a century after the civil rights leader’s assassination, there are still in his words “two Americas”:

“One America is beautiful for situation. And, in a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity…” “This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair.” (‘The Other America’ speech given at Stanford University 14th April, 1967)

Dr King was labelled a “communist” for calling out the economic disparities that divided U.S. citizens, and how this was often determined by colour, much as today’s Black Lives Matter movement is labelled “Marxist”. King was shot dead on 4th April 1968, almost exactly a year after he gave his speech on The Other America. The Civil Rights movement did not die with King, but has still not reached what King described in a speech given the day before his murder as “The Promised Land”.

Soon after his death and annually thereafter, Congress considered, and for over a decade rejected, calls to mark his legacy with a Holiday. Some politicians made no attempt to hide the naked racism behind their objections.

Surprisingly, it was President Ronald Reagan who in 1983 following a 6 million signature petition and a 338 to 90 vote in the House of Representatives, signed the bill into law. Not surprisingly, Reagan had originally opposed the bill, because he said, it would cost money to give government employees another day off work (about $18 million) But pragmatically, Reagan saw backing the holiday as a way of shoring up his support amongst black voters who had suffered disproportionately from his attacks on welfare and the ideologically driven erosion of civil rights legislation.

Martin Luther King Jr Day was first observed on 20 January 1986. Originally the holiday was proposed to take place on King’s Birthday, 15th January, but a concession had been made so it would be held annually on the third Monday in January.

Giving workers a day off is seen by employers as downright “un-American” – the USA is the only advanced economy in the World that does not guarantee employees paid vacation time. Federal Public Holidays only apply to government employees who get paid, or time off in lieu. None essential government offices close and as a courtesy stock market trading is usually halted and other institutions such as banks and schools may close for the day.

But States do not have to observe any of the 10 Federal Public Holidays. (New Year’s Day; Martin Luther King Jr Day; Washington’s Birthday [which is never actually held on his birthday and is now usually known as “Presidents’ Day”]; Memorial Day; Independence Day; Labor Day; Columbus Day; Veterans Day; Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Only 21 of the 50 States recognise Columbus Day for example. Cities and States can have their own public holidays, though usually they “observe” the day rather than letting anyone get paid for having a day off.

A year after Martin Luther King Day became law, and the State of Arizona adopted it, the new Governor promptly rescinded it. In 1990, the State asked if they should reinstate it and the notoriously racist voters said no. It was not until the year 2000, that New Hampshire became the last of the 50 States to observe Martin Luther King Day. But even then, some States did their best to take Martin Luther King out of Martin Luther King Day.

In Arkansas they chose to jointly celebrate “Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday and Robert E. Lee’s Birthday Day”. Without any sense of irony, they linked the civil rights leader with the Confederate Civil War leader. Lee was defeated by the Union army at the Battle of Gettysburg and only pardoned for his role in the rebellion 110 years later by President Gerald Ford. Lee was actually opposed to slavery, but because of its effects on white people – he believed it was good for black people.

Alabama and Mississippi also observe King-Lee Day. Virginia took the idea further and added another Confederate General – Stonewall Jackson – to King-Lee Day. They were persuaded to drop the Generals in 2000.

In Utah, they managed to observe Martin Luther King Day without mentioning MLK at all, instead they called it “Human Rights Day”, so they could indulge in the American habit of calling out other countries for their human rights abuses.

It could have been worse. In 2010 the State had considered jointly marking King and gun manufacturer John Browning. (At least King’s killer used a Remington.)

King was shot dead as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, (now the National Civil Rights Museum). He was due to go to a meeting with striking sanitation workers.

Despite being honoured with a Federal Holiday (not even Lincoln gets one of those), the government managed to acknowledge King’s legacy in a way that downplays his radicalism, his opposition to the Vietnam War and in particular his belief in the need for wealth redistribution. Professor Jeanne Theoharis of Brooklyn College-City University of New York has argued that whilst making King part of the American national myth, they have tried to sanitise and de-radicalise him. By focusing on courageous individuals such as King, they avoid acknowledging that the protests for civil rights were mass movements. They promote:

“…the idea that King and figures like Rosa Parks shone a light on injustice, and (said injustice) has since been eradicated. …putting the movement and the problem of racism in the past. … [and] …the idea of American exceptionalism — the belief that the [supposed success of the] civil rights movement demonstrates the power of American democracy.”

Every year the FBI’s mark #MLKDay with a tweet reminding followers that etched in stone at their training academy is a quote from King which reminds them “The time is always right to do what is right”. Every year they are reminded on Twitter that when King was doing what was right, the Bureau was tapping his phone, trying to blackmail him and describing him in a memo as, "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country."

The last days of the Trump administration have proved King is still right about there being two Americas.


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