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Honoring Dr. King

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Message Charles Sullivan
One of the most sickening incarnations of capitalism is its ability to sabotage the meaning of important holidays and render them nothing more than excuses for the excesses of blatant commercialism. Witness the subversion of Labor Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, President's Day and even Martin Luther King's birthday as excuses to pander merchandise to an insatiable public riddled with debt. Is nothing sacred?

Federal holidays were originally created to commemorate important events in the history of our nation. However, the real meaning of Christmas has no connection to the excesses of commercialism that so characterizes America today. Labor Day was originally created to honor the heroic struggles of organized labor against corporate tyranny. Thousands of people died in the fight to end the practice of child labor; to give us the forty hour work week and the weekend; to provide workers with a safer and more humane work place. Now Labor Day is an excuse to hold a sale. It has become a day in which millions of workers in the retail industry are forced to work. Few of these workers earn a living wage and most have poor, if any, benefits. Capitalism has turned the meaning of Labor Day on its head and subverted it to its own purposes.

As appalling as the co-option of these holidays are, perhaps none is more insulting to the spirit than the subversion of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday to the devices of patent commercialism. Those of us who recognize the just cause of the civil rights movement would be dishonoring the memory of Dr. King by going to the mall on his holiday and spending our money on trinkets of excess. To do so is to trivialize the danger that Dr. King and his followers faced. It would make petty the selfless acts of moral and physical courage that those who participated in the civil rights movement demonstrated. It would trivialize not only the life of Dr. King""it would make a mockery of all that his life symbolized. Dr. King deserves better from us.

The commemoration of Dr. King's birthday is especially relevant to those of us who lived in his time. We remember how appalling conditions were in those days. We recall that black people could not go where white people went. They were relegated to using the back entrance to restaurants, if they were admitted at all. Blacks had their own drinking fountains. They were consigned to taking seats at the back of the bus and were required to give them up when whites demanded them. Movie theaters were segregated according to skin color, with the choice seats going to white patrons. I have seen all of this and more with my own eyes; and I will never forget it.

Prior to the success engendered by Dr. King and the civil rights movement, black people were routinely beaten by vigilante mobs of white supremacists. Lynchings were common in the Deep South. Homes and churches were sometimes burned to the ground, even with the black occupants still inside. The police and the militia were often called forth to turn water canons on the courageous men, women, and children who refused to be treated like second class citizens in a place that called itself a democracy. Many of them, including Dr. King, sacrificed their lives so that things could be different.

Too many of us have no conception of the climate of hate and discrimination that characterized the days before the civil rights movement. The young are especially prone to ignorance about how things were during America's apartheid. Let us not forget how it was in those awful days. As imperfect as things are in America today, they used to be worse""much worse. Dr. King changed all of that.

Let us commemorate the spiritual legacy, the moral courage and fortitude that Dr. King brought to the social justice movement of this country. Let us celebrate the life of one of America's greatest and brightest citizens. Let us take heart in his unwavering dedication to a doctrine of non violent resistance. We cannot honor Dr. King, or the countless brave souls who brought about sweeping social changes in the racially charged climate of the past, by emptying our wallets at shopping malls. Dr. King sacrificed his life for the just cause of racial and socio-economic equality. We are where we are today but by the grace of Dr. King and others like him. Let us take hope from the extraordinary example he set for us. We owe him something.
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Charles Sullivan is a photographer, social activist and free lance writer residing in the hinterland of West Virgina.
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