Growing up, I didn't think much of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As I recall, school was held as usual and there was little in the way of local observance otherwise. Like Columbus Day, the holiday amounted to little more than a closed post office, an upsurge in the sale of related commemorative postage stamps and, some years, a brief feature on network news.
I wonder if such ignorance of the holiday didn't have something to do with an ignorance - or worse - of the man. Furthermore, I sometimes believe this ignorance was due, in part, to geographical region. Were things different in upstate New York? Michigan? New Mexico? Today, the state of Virginia celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day - always the third Monday in January - by sandwiching the preceding weekend with a holiday all the state's own, Robert E. Lee/Stonewall Jackson Day. That's right, federally employed Virginians are granted a four day weekend, one set aside to remember Martin Luther King, Jr, a great civil rights/humanitarian activist, and two great generals of the Southern Confederacy. It does give one pause, even if my Southern roots - and half-hearted loyalty - want to believe that the new holiday is a celebration of state's rights rather than a blatant, racist attempt to sabotage any veneration of King.
And yet it's clear that attacks on - and bastardizations of - King's legacy are not limited to the southeastern United States. In September 2004, the U.S. Army published a recruiter handbook for distribution via their School Recruiting Program (SRP). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 grants military recruiters the same access to middle and high school students' information that was previously available only to colleges or potential employers. As a result, the armed forces have increased recruitment efforts at our nation's public schools and the SRP handbook offers recruiters instruction in salesmanship. Two suggestions jump out at me.
"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is in January. Wear your dress blues and participate in school events commemorating this holiday.
February: Black History Month. Participate in events as available."
Shine and sharpen those teeth, boys...we've got some hearts and minds to win over.