It shouldn’t be a surprise, but the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. has morphed into a great many things, including a day where stores promote sales and holiday specials. From car salesmen to Old Navy, Macy’s and Bath & Body Works, the slain civil rights leader’s birthday is increasingly seen by businesses in the same way they see opportunities for sales in the Christmas or Memorial Day seasons.
After all, King’s birthday represents to many another day off, a long weekend to get in some additional shopping, relaxation or even a leisure trip out of town. The holiday joins the pantheon of American three-day weekends, with all the relaxation trappings that go along with those cherished occasions. But if any day of national remembrance deserves more than the standard quest for sales and bargains, it’s that of Martin Luther King Jr., who was born Jan. 15, 1929, and would be 85 years old.
Despite the fact that there has been a good deal of revisionism about the life of King and what he stood for — with right-wing conservatives reinventing him in a way that is breathtakingly distorting — there are some things that most Americans can agree upon in terms of how to honor him.
King was a distinctly different kind of American from those whom the country tends to honor. He was not a president or some nationally elected official. He was, in fact, a man whom the American government wiretapped and sought to discredit for taking a moral stand against a system of American apartheid in which the nation’s culture was deeply steeped.
The other thing on which most Americans can agree is that King’s position in the spotlight is one he never sought and came to quite reluctantly. He didn’t conceive of the Montgomery bus boycott that ignited a flame that changed a nation. He was simply the man who, with great averseness, answered the call of his fellow ministers to be a public face on longstanding and aching problems: Segregation and inequality.
He was no saint, but rather a man of deep conviction who sacrificed enormously — including his own life — to seek to wrestle with the wrenching problems of the country he loved and highlighting its flaws. He was not always widely beloved. Many people now tend to forget, for example, how his principled opposition to the war in Vietnam earned him not only the irritation of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, but also the condemnation of the very African-American people whose concerns he championed.
And so, this birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. should be a moment for Americans of solemn reflection on where this nation is with regard to the needs of its most marginalized people. But more than that, it should represent a call to action for Americans of every shade to find ways to address the challenges faced by Americans living at those margins.
Jonathan Hicks is senior national correspondent at BET.com and a columnist. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.