mlk and 44

January 19th, 2009

I don’t know if there’s any worse way to commemorate someone than to give him or her a Federal holiday. Because really, what’s meant to be a day to honor Lincoln or veterans or what have you, inevitably becomes just another day off school and another mega-sale at the mall.

MLK day is no exception. It might even be more detached from its meaning because it’s a relatively recent addition to the Federal calendar, so some people have it off, some don’t, and it’s so close to winter break it inevitably ends up being that Monday off in January when there aren’t even really good sales. (After all, it’s kind of gauche for stores to slash prices in honor of someone who was shot .)

But this MLK Day feels different somehow. Impossible not to feel the import of. Impossible not to consider without getting goosebumps, without realizing how swiftly history can tranform. Because one day after this commemoration of  what would’ve been Martin Luther King Junior’s 80th birthday, Barack Hussein Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. 

One of MLK’s most poignant and prophetically creepy speeches is known as his Mountaintop speech. In it, he says “I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land….I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” The whole thing is pretty amazing, the rousing final moments are awe-inspiring and chilling, especially knowing that Dr. King was murdered the day after he said these words. 

 When I was volunteering in Philadelphia before last year’s presidential election, there was a saying that was especially popular in black communities and it went like this: “Rosa sat, so Martin could march so Barack could run, so our children could fly.” I’m going to explain what that means in case some of you guys aren’t totally up on your history. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city  city bus in Montgomery Alabama, igniting the civil-rights movement, which was led by  Martin Luther King, who led millions in peaceful protest marches, which ultimately gave way to major legislative civil rights victories (although by no means, the end of race problems), which paved the way for Barack running.

As for “so our children could fly,” I think that part’s open to interpretation. In black communities, I imagine it means so black kids can break free of generations of racism and diminished opportunities and now truly do anything and be anything. But I also take it to mean that children everywhere can transcend the barriers other have put up to block their progress: black kids, poor kids, gay kids, disabled kids. Whoever you are: Yes you can. 

I don’t know if I believe in heaven or in the idea of dead people being able to look down on us and see what’s going on. But on certain days, I really, really hope that they can. 

And on Tuesday, I hope that MLK will be watching the swearing in on Capitol Hill (where I’ll be, freezing and crying and praying for a port-a-potty). I don’t know if he would consider Obama’s inauguration an arrival to the Promised Land. But I think he would be pretty happy.