How to honor Dr. King

Staff WriterJanuary 20, 2004 

Not that I see one on the horizon, but if y'all ever deign to make my birthday a national holiday, please celebrate it by going to work and sending your children to school.

"But Big Papa," you say, "your birthday is in the middle of the summer, when schools are closed."

Don't care; make 'em go anyway.

Watching kids hang out at the mall, in video arcades, while their parents look for bargains each King Day makes me wonder "How in the hell are they honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?"

The answer is, "They are not."

Dr. King's birthday didn't become a holiday until 1986, by which time I'd been out of school and out in the world for nearly a decade. As an uninspired student, I'd have welcomed any respite from school -- but still would have questioned what my hanging out on the basketball court had to do with honoring the dude.

You know all of those interfaith religious services, parades and speeches commemorating King? Great stuff: Just do it on the weekend or after school.

Taking King's birthday off -- from work, from school -- is akin to a mountain climber's nearly conquering his highest peak and then lying down to take a nap instead of reveling in the accomplishment, girding his loins for the final push.

Despite the unimaginable progress we've made over the past 40 years, no one would say we've reached that mythical mountaintop of which King dreamed. Now is not the time for napping. Or taking off.

Playing hooky from work or school, even if it is officially sanctioned, is not the way to honor his memory. Those of us who hold jobs and positions to which we couldn't even have aspired 40 years ago should make it a point to go to work and make our children take advantage of educational opportunities to which previous generations didn't have access.

Alas, too many of our children are not doing that. That is evidenced by the woeful performance of way too many black kids on standardized tests, where their scores lag behind almost every other group's.

You want to honor Dr. King?

Here's a good start: Make your children go to school and learn something. It's presumptuous to think you know what a man who's been dead for 35 years would think, but I'd bet my "Al Sharpton for President" lapel button -- I found it -- that King would feel more honored by your kids learning to conjugate verbs than hanging out at the food court. Or even attending a service in his name.

Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington, who favored vocational training over book learning, wrote "No race can prosper until it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."

That may have been true 100 years ago in an agrarian society, Booker T., but the only thing tilling a field will make you today is irrelevant.

By this time next year, black parents should be lobbying their kids' school district and demanding that school be in on King's birthday. If not, they may find their kids still living at home 10 years from now -- looking for a field to till.

Want to tell Barry what you think of this column or anything else? Call him at 836-2811 or send him e-mail at barrys@newsobserver.com.

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