New Hampshire was one of the last states to choose to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Day. When it was first passed as a federal holiday, we resisted a bit, then passed “Civil Rights Day” to coincide with the federal observance.
I thought that was a good move. At that point (and still today), we have no other holiday that is linked to a specific individual American. We used to have Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday, but they got melded together into “President’s Day.” But only Dr. King is currently honored.
I have some issues with that. I respect and honor the civil rights movement, and certainly think it worthy of a day of celebration and remembrance. (And education and discussion; I don’t think it should be a school holiday.) But I have qualms about wrapping the entire movement into one man.
When you make a single person the “face” of a movement, you make that movement vulnerable to the weaknesses of the person. That was recognized by Saul Alinsky, who noted as one of his rules for radicals: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.
That’s one of the reasons the Tea Party has been so successful: it has no clearly identified leadership. That hasn’t stopped the left from trying to coronate a “king” or “queen” ot the Tea Party — Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, the Koch brothers, Dick Armey, me — so they can then tear down the leader and wreck the movement. And it’s failed miserably every time.
But back to my point. By putting Dr. King up as the embodiment and personification of the civil rights movement, it allows some people to keep rehashing King’s character (the charges of plagiarism and infidelity come to mind), and ignoring his legacy — the fundamental change he helped bring about in this nation.
This nation owes a huge debt to Dr. King, but more to the movement that was far bigger than he was. And from what I know about Dr. King, he would be pleased that the citizens of “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” first chose to honor his movement, and only later added his name to the holiday.
Thank you, Dr. King. And thank you, all who took up his cause. Your struggle was a hard one, but in the end, you won. And we are all so much the better for that.