In my Philadelphia neighborhood, Monday is garbage day, which means Sunday night is garbage night. Exceptions are made for any national holiday. Yet, for some reason, the streets are all piled high with garbage as I walk home tonight. I can’t help wondering if the citizens of Philadelphia know something I don’t. Is Martin Luther King Jr. day really a garbage day? That would be a final irony, that a man assassinated when he went to Memphis to take up the cause of that city’s sanitation workers would end up with garbage collectors everywhere forced to work on his day. But I can believe it. MLK day is the great shameful national holiday. Perhaps nothing other than America’s decision to celebrate Labor Day in September instead of on May 1, like the rest of the world, so reveals the depths of our national hypocrisy. Honor the man, sure, just don’t honor a damn thing he stood for. That it was such a struggle to get the holiday at all has had the perverse result of encouraging liberal complacency: with a sanctioned day off, who needs to think about the unofficial racism in property taxes, urban planning, public schools, the southern strategy, drug laws, and the current state of prisons. Need I go on?
Let me come clean: I was one of those 1970s children for whom images of the civil rights movement and recordings of Dr. King were as much a part of my birthright as were the images of the Holocaust in my father’s three-volume German history of the Second World War. The heroism of the man was clear in every recording of every speech, every bit of newsreel footage, everything he ever published. I don’t care about the affairs or anything else. No human being is perfect. That Martin Luther King was closer than most is no excuse to dwell on his few failings or twist his words to suit the cause of the status quo. To anyone who does such spinning, that is, to most of the conservative writers and talking heads in this country, there can be only one response: “Shame,” I say to them, and shame, really, on all of us, though on them most of all. So, this Martin Luther King day, I’d like to recommend the following thought experiment: imagine Dr. King had not been assassinated. Imagine RFK had not been assassinated. Write, in your heads, the history of this country with them here to guide us. Imagine no Nixon. Imagine no urban riots. Imagine no schism between blacks and Jews. Imagine all the up-and-coming justice department lawyers who’d never have needed to leave for the private sector. Imagine no Cheney, no Rumsfeld, no Bush. Imagine it all, and feel the weight of the fallen world we live in, down to the last bullet in the last gun of the last white supremacist. He’s still out there. Why in the world aren’t we?