By MARSHA MERCER
The federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. got off to a rocky start, to put it mildly.
In 1986, its first year, only about half the states observed the holiday. In King’s hometown of Atlanta, boxing promoter Don King celebrated the new holiday and the civil rights leader who dedicated his life to nonviolence with, you guessed it, a fight night.
The seven-hour evening, supposedly a tribute, was a “grotesque farce,” author Jack Newfield wrote in “The Life and Crimes of Don King: The Same of Boxing in America.”
Don King “put on seven fights with out-of-shape heavyweights who weighed an aggregate of 3,212 pounds. Every fight stank,” Newfield wrote. In the main event between Tim Witherspoon and Tony Tubbs, Tubbs “acted like he was trying to honor Dr. King by winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the ring.”
After such an unpromising start, it’s remarkable that the King holiday has mostly risen above the crass commercialism that plagues our other holidays.
Retailers seem far more willing to use Presidents Day – originally commemorating the February birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln -- to sell us cars, mattresses and TVs. In contrast, the King holiday summons us to reflect and to give our time making our communities better.
On Jan. 20, bells will toll, churches will hold services and hundreds of thousands of Americans will spend at least part of the King holiday volunteering on community service projects.
King’s statement that “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve” animates the day. People young and old will clean up streams, deliver meals, spruce up schools and community centers, collect food and clothing and sign up mentors, among other things.
But just as it took years to create the holiday, it took years for the holiday officially to become a day of national service.
Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, first introduced legislation to establish a holiday honoring King four days after he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. In 1983, Congress approved the holiday, after ugly opposition in the Senate from Jesse Helms.
The North Carolina Republican filibustered, charging that King was a Marxist who had Communist connections. Helms distributed 300 pages of documents, which Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York famously threw to the Senate floor, stomped on and called “a packet of filth.”
On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making the third Monday in January the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, starting in 1986. Not until 1999, though, did all 50 states observe it.
Even today, states observe the holiday in different ways. For years, Virginia celebrated King and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the same day. In 2000, the state legislature separated the holidays, and Virginia state offices now are closed for King on the third Monday in January and Lee and Jackson on the preceding Friday.
Alabama celebrates Lee and King together, then Confederate Memorial Day in April and the birthday of Jefferson Davis in June.
As for the day of service, a couple of weeks after the first federal King holiday in 1986, sociologist Marion J. Levy Jr. of Princeton University wrote a letter to The New York Times.
“I propose we declare the holiday a ‘day on,’ rather than a ‘day off,’” the professor wrote. His idea was that everyone would work on the holiday and those above the poverty line would send their day’s pay to a special fund benefiting housing, education and other projects.
Levy was rowing against the tide when he suggested that people give up not only their day off but also their wages – but his idea of the holiday as a “`day on, rather than a ‘day off’” stuck. The phrase appears frequently in connection with the day of service.
In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, creating the national day of service, and President Bill Clinton signed it.
It’s a day when we all can be great because we can serve. And that’s a real tribute to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.