Maybe the Real MLK Day is in April

Perhaps we should be marking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s death, rather than his birth.

For what it’s worth, something has been happening to Dr. King’s birthday in recent years that I find refreshing.  It’s started to feel less and less like the typical memorialization of a public figure by marking their birthday (cherry trees, crossings of the Delaware, log cabins, etc). Media is rife with quotations from “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” details of his movement for solidarity among the impoverished, and his sharp critiques of the northern (and thus popularly righteous) social order.  For the sake of King’s legacy, that’s a profoundly positive, if somber, change.

With their April print issue, Van Newkirk II and The Atlantic staff have chosen to take this change even further.  They have chosen their April issue to mark, rather than Dr. King’s birthday, the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

Choosing to remember Dr. King on his birthday was a natural choice for a country frantic to sanitize his legacy, smooth over his hard edges, moderate his radicalism, and unify around an ordering of the world that he – for all the improvements he brought to it – would never have endorsed.  In the decades following King’s death, “hostility toward the civil-rights movement turned into a cherry-picked celebration of the revolution’s victories over segregation and over easily caricatured, gap-toothed bigots in the South.”  In his column "The Whitewashing of King's Assassination," Newkirk writes:

This selective history was cemented in the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 [...]. Reagan had bought into the whitewashed version of King, an image rehabilitated for white consumption and black mollification. In his speech announcing the holiday, Reagan mentioned King’s support for “color-blind” justice and quoted that most quoted portion of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

But Reagan did not mention the remarks he had made as the governor of California on the day of King’s funeral, when he had spoken of “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they’d break”—in effect, blaming King’s own campaign of civil disobedience for his assassination. Nor did Reagan mention that a majority of whites had felt the same way and that many of them had hated King. No mention, either, of the last three years of King’s life, other than his death.

Remembering Dr. King’s birthday lends to the memory a sort of banality that we often associate with a birthday celebration.  A routine pleasantness and familial sort of unity. Marking his death, on the other hand, forces us to grapple with his radicalism and the abortive change for which he fought.  As Newkirk bluntly states, “A single bullet fired from a Remington rifle traveled through King’s spine on April 4. The revolution died with him; the country caught fire.”

One of the most disturbing questions we avoid when celebrating Dr. King’s legacy is of the death of his revolution.  He enjoys remarkable support and any upstanding citizen knows to celebrate his victories even as they condemn football players or activists in Baltimore who employ the same tactics.  The Civil Rights movement for which King became a spokesman is universally accepted as a victory while the man himself is deified. But we never ask “when did the Civil Rights Movement end?”  If it ended in 1965, then for what was Dr. King advocating over the next three years? If it ended with his assassination in Memphis, then how could we reasonably claim that there was no more work to do and proceed to bask in lukewarm self-congratulatory victory each January?

Sometimes the right answer is the simple one.  It never did end, but we celebrate it as a complete victory to avoid grappling with the realization that it must continue.

Van Newkirk II, The Atlantic, and others on the magazine's staff have chosen to mark King's death this year.  In doing so, they grapple more honestly with his legacy. By virtue of the choice itself, marking Martin Luther King Jr’s death, rather than his birth, forces us to recall the causes for which he died, the sinister backlash that killed him, and the solemn reality that he was far from finished fighting it when he died.  Newkirk writes:

I pondered those questions on that January morning in Washington. Just a few days later, the manicured National Mall would be trampled by onlookers who’d come to see American democracy’s quadrennial spectacle, this time for a man who’d been endorsed by the Klan. And I considered one last question: Is this what victory looks like?