Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published Jan. 20

King for a Day


Fresh from their victory saving Grant Elementary School the NAACPís Duluth Chapter is lobbying The School Board to honor Martin Luther King. They want school to be closed on his birthday or at least on the Monday closest to his birth. Martin would become, so to speak, King for a Day.


There is an irony in this. During his lifetime Reverend King was a thorn in the side of the NAACP. His alternative organization, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and his powerful religious message stole the thunder from the cool, legalistic NAACP. Perhaps this was because King appealed to the heart while the NAACP appealed to reason. Nonetheless, the NAACP had their successes as I discovered at a very tender age.


One day, at the beginning of the 1958 school year, the teachers of Loman Hill Elementary School in Topeka , Kansas , sent their students out to the playground for an extended recess. Upon my release from the classroom I climbed to the top of the jungle gym.


As I surveyed the world from my perch I spied a long, orderly line of black children heading down the sidewalk toward our school. The youngest children led the way followed by progressively older students. Each child carried his or her own chair and on each chair stood a neat stack of textbooks. It must have been their teachers - their old teachers - who were shepherding them to Loman Hill. The NAACPís triumph, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, had the unintended consequence of ending the teaching careers of hundreds of black teachers in Topeka . They were no longer needed to teach black children and the tenure laws gave preference to white teachers.


Although Topeka ís school board acceded to the ruling in the Brown case it was an island of sanity. In Little Rock , Arkansas , integration was only accomplished at the point of a bayonet. Throughout the South white families pulled their children out of public school and sent them to newly organized all-white private schools. Private schools were immune from the Supreme Courtís ruling on ďpublicĒ schools. As an added bonus property taxes could be kept low if a community didnít bother with the education of its black children. Since black citizens were largely prevented from voting there wasnít much they could do about the decline of the public schools.


Then the white South sat back smugly and enjoyed watching Northern School Districts explode over the court ordered bussing of children to achieve school integration. America ís schools are more segregated today than they were fifty years ago.


This is not to suggest that times have not changed for the better. Condoleeza Rice, about to become our Nationís Secretary of State, was a nine year old in Birmingham, Alabama when one of her classmates was among the four girls killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of a black church.. The Klan was mad. Rev. King had been jailed the previous spring for trying to register the cityís fearful black voters. .


Kingís Civil Rightís career began by trying to win the same freedom on city busses that white passengers had. Then King worked to give blacks the right to vote. Then he began demanding that the American economy be opened to black Americans. Finally he objected to a war that drafted black men to fight while white boys got college deferments.


King was no more the Civil Rights movement than George Washington was the Revolution or Abraham Lincoln was the Civil War. Rather, the Nationís memory came to see these men as the embodiment of a greater spirit of liberty and justice. Today Washington and Lincoln have their Monday perhaps King should have his too. And yet itís worth pondering whether giving students a day off in Duluth to relax is the best way to commemorate Dr. King.


Martin Luther King once wrote a letter from Birmingham ís Jail to white ministers who were critical of his movement. Among other things he told them that ďinjustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.Ē


Yes, today we have Condoleeza Rice but we also have one million black men Ė one in every twelve, sitting behind prison walls. Most of them are poorly educated, most are denied the vote and all of them are out of the nationís economy. Meanwhile, white Americans have moved to the exurbs, successful blacks have moved to the suburbs, and black inner city children wait for their fatherís paroles. Where is Martin Luther Kingís justice today?


Thereís nothing wrong in taking a day off to celebrate Martin Luther Kingís birth. There is no guarantee that such a holiday will remind us what Martin Luther King lived and died for.


Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com