For years I loved to joke that January 15 was the birthday of two great humanitarians: Martin Luther King, Jr., and me! Back in the days before MLK’s birthday became a national holiday, schools in Illinois were off on January 15, so as a teacher, I had my birthday off every year.
My teacher friends and I usually celebrated the night before by going down to Greektown in the city of Chicago and putting away saganaki, moussaka, Rodity’s wine, and ouzo. (I’m sure my former students are shocked.) Not exactly a meaningful way to honor the man who galvanized the American civil rights movement, was it?
Years later, when I was teaching at a private girls school in the rarefied atmosphere of Bel Air, California, the assistant principal, an African-American woman, addressed an assembly at the school to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. She mentioned the fact that nowadays, people celebrate President’s Day by going shopping. Look at the circulars in the daily paper, and you will see all kinds of President’s Day sales advertised. She went on to say she looked forward to the day when racial discrimination and prejudice were such a thing of the past that the MLK holiday would be similarly celebrated – not by marches, speeches, or commemorations, but by a good home sale at the local Macy’s.
More recently, communities across the country have made MLK’s birthday holiday into a day of service. My husband’s company, for example, invites the families of employees to come downtown and participate in various volunteer activities. This strikes me as a much more appropriate, if less bacchanalian, way to celebrate the birthday of such a great man.
Since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday became a national holiday, it is no longer always celebrated on my birthday. Still, I feel honored to share a birthday with one of the greatest leaders our country has ever known.