Martin Luther King Day - 11 November 1983

There was once an English newspaper editor who, from time to time, would send out a cable to one of his foreign correspondents who had been working long and steadily at his job.

The cable read, simply, "Go fallow, go doggo". The idea behind this order or advice was that the man – they were always men in those days – that the men had been too close to the politicians or people or the life, of the country he was writing about, and might have developed a little near-sightedness about it. At any rate, nothing but good, at the least nothing but useful misgivings, can come from a break from the bacteria you have had under your microscope all the time.

Well, nobody asked me to go fallow or to go out to pasture, which at my age would be a very risky procedure, since, I noticed long ago, nothing is commoner, in the world of business and the professions, for a keen and vigorous man to say to his wife, complaining about the constant postponement of a long break, "Mildred, the day I am 65, or whatever, I shall lock up this desk and we’ll take off for a trip around the world, or wherever".

About a month after the birthday party the man keels over, in Bangkok or Blackpool or some other wonder of the world, and to tell a writer to take a holiday is like telling him to stop thinking.

This is by way of reminding you that I am about 9,000 miles away from base – from the Big Apple that is and, silent on a peak in the Alps – the New Zealand Alps, that is – am able at least to brood a little more calmly about some of the burning issues whose smoke and steam tend to fog up your vision when you stand too close to them.

Just as the appalling explosion in the marine base in Lebanon, was happening and just before the little war broke out to save democracy in Grenada, something came up in Washington that got squeezed out of the running commentary, though it can rightly be called historic – the decision, on the part of the Congress and then on the part of a rather reluctant president to proclaim, for only the second time in the history of this republic, a man’s birthday as a national holiday.

The man, as you probably know, is the late, the murdered, Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, who, during the 1950s in the South and during the 60s throughout all the country, was the most unflagging crusader against all the ills, the discrimination, the injustices, that black Americans had, for over 350 years, suffered from.

It all started for him – and in the long view, for the country – in December 1955 when a solitary black woman, no agitator but a comfortable, motherly sort, refused to follow the immemorial tradition of taking a proper place in a public bus.

In Montgomery, Alabama this was, that proper place was, the back of the bus. I suppose she wouldn’t have dared have thought of making her little protest if, the year before, the Supreme Court had not reversed its age-old ruling that Negros were entitled to separate but equal treatment under the law. The great reversal came on the appeal of a small black girl in Topeka, Kansas who had to walk a couple of miles, including a toddle across railway lines, in order to get to her black school when there was another public, but all-white, school practically round her corner.

A lawyer for the little girl, whose name was Brown, challenged the local board of education on the ground that the fourteenth amendment to the constitution, which guarantees the equal protection of the law to all persons born or naturalised in the United States, was a guarantee that contradicted and over-rode the practice of separate schooling.

So, in the spring of 1954 the Spreme Court heard her case, immortalised now as Brown versus board of education of Topeka and ruled that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional, that the constitution is colour-blind that, in a word, the segregation of blacks and whites in the public schools was illegal under federal law.

We all know by now that in the intervening 30 years, the new ruling came to apply not only to schools but to theatres, public eating places, trains, planes, employment and on and on. However, the first adult challenge to the ideas of separatists came from that motherly lady who decided, on a day in November 1955, not to sit in a separate place reserved for blacks at the back of the bus, but to sit up front. She was made to leave the bus. Other blacks tried to do the same; they were ejected.

There were small rallies and there came into Montgomery the young, handsome black figure of one Reverend Martin Luther King. He organised a boycott of the bus company and there were so many blacks who normally used the buses who just went on walking everywhere, that in the end the bus company gave in.

During that boycott I went down to Montgomery and listened to both sides. The company's side was that the boycott had been engineered by a minority of blacks, and that most of them were happy enough with the old custom. I found, by the way, a surprising number but no majority truly did not want to raise a fuss about it.Then I went, the only white person, into a service in Montgomery’s Zionist African Methodist church one memorable evening.

When this extraordinary young man, in his early 30s, this confident black man preached in a strangely hypnotic language I’d heard only once before from a black preacher, in Beale Street, Memphis, an easy, eloquent earthy idiom that derived from nothing but the Bible and the poignant repetition of the folk wisdom of the blues. He certainly hypnotised that swaying, shouting congregation and, even then, he was talking about the day of deliverance, "such as Moses brought to my people Israel".

We all remember, after that, the years of the Reverend King's leadership when he became to the blacks a figure very like that of Ghandi. He went everywhere, he lead marches and protests; he went to jail; he was at the head of rallies, small and huge, that suffered from police dogs, from being hosed down, from stoning and other humiliations.

He curbed the hotheads among his flock and, everywhere, preached non-violence and, on a day at the end of August 1963, held a peaceful and never-to-be-forgotten rally of a quarter of a million blacks and whites in the shadow of the Washington monument, in the capital. I recall that rally when it was commemorated 20 years later, couple of months ago, but this time by over half a million people.

Well, the move to have a national public holiday in honour of Martin Luther King started quietly, shortly after his assassination in Memphis, in the spring of 1968, but it was a small, exclusively black movement and if anybody had publicised it much at the time, I am sure there would have been millions of Americans, who’d have thought of it as a cranky crusade.

The thing must have been gathering momentum, down the years, without our knowing it because quite suddenly, and surprisingly to most of us, a bill was proposed in Congress, and before we knew it, it had appeared to be a serious bill, and a great deal of support was promised to it by senators and congressmen of both parties.

It’s still something of a mystery, how a bill should come to the floor of both houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives, to do something for the reverend King which was never done for Thomas Jefferson, for Benjamin Franklin, for any of the colonial worthies, nor for Franklin Roosevelt, not even for Abraham Lincoln.

I had better remind you now that there are only four national holidays so ordered by federal law: George Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and what used to be called, armistice day, Veterans Day. All federal office buildings are closed, including post offices and the banks and most businesses follow.

Independence Day and Thanksgiving Day are holidays not by law, but by presidential proclamation. And, of course, very few people have been known to challenge their right to work on them... but the glaring novelty that stands out from these celebrations is that only George Washington is, by national law, accorded a national holiday.

You may wonder about Abraham Lincoln. Many people have wondered. There was movement, years after the civil war, to have his birthday proclaimed, at least proclaimed a national holiday, but the feeling in the South that Lincoln was not so much the saviour of the republic as its betrayer, remained deep-seated and, to this day, no southern state observes the Lincoln holiday except Florida, which for so long has been a remote bedroom suburb in the south for retired or refugee northerners.

So now, Martin Luther King, the bill, passed with scarcely a dissent in the House of Representatives. And in the Senate, only two southerners of four nays voted against it. One was the indomitable senator Jesse Helms from the Carolinas who wanted the FBI’s file on the Reverend King started, by the way, at the instance of Bobby Kennedy when he was attorney general, wanted that file opened up now, to reveal, according to Senator Helms, that King was a Marxist.

The file was sealed by agreement between the King family and the Department of Justice for 35 years. And when the president was asked by a reporter if he thought King was a Communist, the president made the astonishingly imprudent reply, well, we’ll know in 35 years, won’t we? He afterwards apologised to the Reverend King’s widow.

It can be held that the Congress voted cynically because, in the coming presidential election, blacks are going to register to vote in unprecedented numbers. One senator indeed said if the vote had been based on phone calls, I am not sure there’d have been any votes at all.

Certainly nobody running for president dared have come out against the bill, but there was not a whisper of a popular protest movement against the vote, for the reason I think the Wall Street Journal gave – everybody now knows that since Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, black citizens have not been free and the reason everyone knows it’s true, is that Martin Luther King made America see it.

It was, I believe, put better than anybody by Senator Dole, a Republican. He said, it is simply a symbolic acknowledgement that the work of the declaration of independence is unfinished.

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