By Greg Markley
In 1986, I covered the first King Holiday parade, in Atlanta; now I see people forgetting the holiday’s’ meaning
As the Opelika community gears up to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I aim to remind you of two people who were essential to the civil rights leader getting a national holiday in his honor. As a young soldier-journalist in Atlanta, I covered the first MLK birthday celebrations in January 1986. I will elaborate on this later. But first, I issue a reminder: members of the Opelika community should try their best to attend the “21st Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance Day Program” on Monday, Jan. 20. This event will be held at the Opelika Center for the Performing Arts on OHS’s campus. The 2020 theme, “Nonviolence is Love” pays tribute to young people in Opelika, Auburn and Lee County and surrounding areas who have lost their lives because of acts of violence.
The first person who had a grand role in advancing the idea of a national holiday for King was his widow, Coretta Scott King. A friend of mine said in the 1980s that he saw Mrs. King at the Atlanta airport three times in three years. Not only did she travel a lot, but she was not afraid of contacting politicians at any level to push her ideas.
As President Reagan said when he signed the bill for the holiday: “Since Dr. King’s death, his father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., and his wife, Coretta King, have eloquently and forcefully carried on his work.” She carried MLK’s mantle until she died in 2006. A Marion, Alabama native, Mrs. King was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame. Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush attended her funeral with Carter giving a funeral oration. (President Ford and his wife Betty were absent as he was ill.)
Although many national politicians and activists spurred on the move for a King holiday, a giant lift came from superstar singer Stevie Wonder. Wonder wrote a hit song,
“Happy Birthday” about King, which jump-started the efforts for the first holiday for a private citizen in U.S. history.
An activist as well as a singer, Wonder raised money for the proposed holiday at his concerts. Wonder also made public appearances and statements in favor of it. Still, as Erin Blackmore explains on the History Channel website, getting the holiday done was not easy.
“Opponents suggested that the idea King—a black minister who was vilified during his life and gunned down when he was just 39 years old—deserved a holiday was nothing short of incendiary,” wrote Blackmore on The History Channel website. “It wasn’t until 2000 that every state in the Union finally observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.”
When I was at the inaugural 1986 MLK birthday celebration in Atlanta, there was an aspect of this appropriate new holiday that I feared might happen. And, 34 years later, I regret to see that it is happening on a large scale. The following is not meant as criticism to any particular group or ethnicity or race. Dr. King was against blanket criticisms, and so am I.
I was worried as a 29-year-old journalist writing about events such as this annual birthday event would become “just another holiday” as many others have. For example, I usually attend some Memorial Day event or another to honor those who gave their lives for my country and me.
As a veteran, I may have a stronger motive to get up earlier that day than others. Still, I see these events getting smaller and smaller in attendance. In 1998, I covered the giant Birmingham Veterans’ Day dinner at Boutwell Auditorium and the parade. I returned twice since, and the crowds for the events are diminishing each time.
Lesson: People may fall into the rut of getting an extra day off, without a minute spent on a man killed at age 39 trying to improve life in America. Luckily, governments to include those in Opelika, Auburn and Lee County do a wonderful job with such events. Also in our area, schools, public and private do a fine job of teaching about King and celebrating his birthday.
So enjoy the events this year celebrating King’s birth 91years ago. Think about King’s non-violent approach and about how he was killed because he sought progress and tolerance.
Politicians over the years have approved holidays hoping the holidays would be honored, not just considered a day for going to a lake or catching up on sleep.
I don’t mean to hector readers regarding celebrating holidays. Go ahead and have fun on those days. Still, and especially this week in Martin Luther King, Jr’s case, let’s spend time appreciating his contributions. As Stevie Wonder sang in “Happy Birthday”: “There ought to be a time, That we can set aside, To show just how much we love you.”
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 18 of the last 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.