WHAT MLK DAY MEANS TO ME

Martin Luther King Day is much more than a holiday.

I often wonder what those who didn’t know the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. think of the man and the holiday. I don’t have that problem.

I am a 54-year-old lesbian of African descent who grew up in Huntsville, Ala. My parents strategized and marched with King. I learned about civil disobedience and protests from them when I was 4 years old. I heard them talk of engaging in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. And they explained to me that we would not be buying new clothes from the segregated stores in town on Easter because King, in conjunction with the local churches, had organized a boycott. If we couldn’t shop at these stores by entering the front door, then we wouldn’t patronize them.

Easter clothes and accoutrements were a very big deal among a lot of African Americans in the South. It was the time when we put on our finest clothes. We all got entirely new outfits, the whole regalia, including underwear, shoes, purses, hats, and gloves.

So it was a very big deal to forgo this. In fact, the organizing strategy was to wear blue jeans that Easter Sunday in 1962. Now, little black girls did not wear pants to church anywhere in the 1960s, much less jeans. But it was a visible way to demonstrate our outrage with stores that discriminated against us based on race. King knew that this would be a hard sell in the black community, but he also understood that it was essential.

I never met King, but my father so vividly described the meetings and organizing sessions around the boycott that in my young mind I had met the great man. Plus, in a lot of black homes in the 1960s, there were three pictures hanging on the walls: Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

My father, just five years younger than King, spoke of him both as a good friend and as a genius. His oratory skills were legendary, and I’m not simply speaking of his oft-quoted “I Have a Dream” speech. If there was an opportunity to hear King preach, you took that opportunity. His down-home preaching was so good that it made you want to holler and fan yourself at the same time.

I wonder what King, who would have been 83 this year, would make of the country in 2012. He would notice the national holiday and all of the streets named after him, but I imagine he would not be impressed. King was a man of substance. Stamps, holidays, and streets were not in his master plan.

King advocated for diversity, for an end to discrimination. At the time of his death, his focus was not just on race; he was speaking in support of labor unions and their right to strike and organize for better working conditions and benefits. His “dream” has not come to fruition. But neither are we in the nightmare that some might suggest. A lot of folks simply “talk the talk” rather than “walk the walk” around the diversity King dreamed of and worked toward. Some of us spend the majority of our time with people who look like us rather than those who reflect the rich diversity of which King spoke.

King had not specifically focused on diversity based on sexual orientation, but there is no doubt that he would have embraced equality regardless of sexual orientation, including, but not limited to, the right to marry and adopt children. King worked with and organized with Bayard “Brother Outsider” Rustin, who was openly gay. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, supported full marriage equality for the LGBT community before her death, just as Dr. King would undoubtedly have done.

On Jan. 16 and beyond, I will honor the anniversary of King’s birth, as I did even in the years before it became a federal holiday. I will shed tears over the loss of a great man and a philosopher. I will rue the lack of knowledge that most have of his life and legacy. And I will offer a not-so-silent prayer that the best way to honor King is by listening or reading some of his speeches and by “walking the walk” of diversity. I will hope for all-inclusive diversity regardless of race, color, national origin, sexual orientation or identity, and physical or mental differences.

It has been nearly 44 years since Dr. King’s death. It is time to end all forms of discrimination against folk. Actions do speak louder than words.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Do more than “lift every voice and sing”: speak out against discrimination and advocate for legislative and social change for its end, as well.

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