I’ve got boxes of press badges, but this one is one of my most cherished. Hard to believe it’s been 34 years since I covered that very first Martin Luther King Jr. birthday observance, what we’ve shortened to MLK Day. More on my coverage in a moment, but I wanted to re-tell a story I’ve told before, about a personal episode regarding the holiday and how it’s indicative of how it’s sometimes perceived.
One Monday in January, 2002 I showed up for work at the Associated Press at my regular time, not completely sure why I was able to find a better parking space than usual but grateful. Before I could reach my desk the shift supervisor intercepted me and with amusement in her eyes asked what I was doing in the office.
“Uh…Monday,” was all I could muster.
“Uh, MLK Day,” she replied. “You get a choice of off days. MLK Day or your birthday. So who’s birthday you going to celebrate?”
No one likes Mondays so I scooted out of the bureau hightailed back to my car, giving up my awesome parking space.
During the 30 minute drive home, I was a bit ashamed that MLK Day just wasn’t on my radar…that it was an optional holiday per the union agreement. His birthday or yours. Didn’t matter. You get a day off. Never crossed my mind. It should have. Not only because I grew up in the 60’s, was 100 percent aware of, and in awe of, his courage and accomplishments, recall with great clarity hearing the bulletin announcing his assassination, but because 16 years earlier, I was assigned to cover the very first MLK Day in his hometown of Atlanta for CNN.
But as I reported in the story attached here, MLK Day faced a volume of struggles in direct proportion to the challenges Dr. King faced in life. Bigotry, small-mindedness, ignorance. Indeed, there seems to be a take it or leave it attitude. Your birthday or his…which day do you want off? Doesn’t matter. Pick one.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many wonderful events commemorating Dr. King’s birthday including the annual “United We Walk” march in my community in suburban Detroit, and many, many others across the country.
I remember covering those first MLK Day activities from Dr. King’s church, on the street where the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change sits, where Dr. King is buried. On a map it’s called Auburn Avenue. In the hearts of those who respect Dr. King’s work, it’s called Sweet Auburn.
I interviewed all sorts of people including Rev. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Dr. King’s widow, Coretta. She exuded peacefulness, forgiveness and strength. Side note: Mrs. King kept her eyes closed during the entire interview. Maybe she was in deep reflection. After we were done, she opened her eyes and thanked us. Her assistant explained her eyes were closed because the TV lights were so bright.
Jesse Jackson and Rev. Robert Schuller were there. Perhaps caught up in the moment I breathlessly reported to the CNN assignment desk “the civil rights movement has been revived! I can’t wait to turn this package!”
All the air out of my balloon was expelled when the editor told me to just do a VO/SOT. That’s TV language for some video for the anchor to voice over and a soundbite. Don’t even write a full-length piece. Being in the Deep South, I took what’s known down there as a hissy fit. The editor thought I was just a reporter having a tantrum. I was beyond frustrated, but had no recourse but to carry out my assignment.
So there it was. From the first MLK Day to today, 34 years later, the annual remembrance of the birth of this giant of the civil rights movement, who risked his life, and lost it, fighting for common human decency and fairness, still seems to be an afterthought. A welcome three-day weekend. Three at last.
Your birthday or his. Pick one. Do yourself a favor. Choose both. Your life is better because he was born.