TO ME, Martin Luther King Day is much more than a holiday. So, I often wonder what those who didn't know him think and feel about this man, and this special day.
I grew up in Huntsville, Ala., where my parents marched with King. When I was 4 years old, I learned about protests and civil disobedience from my parents when they returned from sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
At the same time, I learned why we would not be buying new clothes from the segregated stores at Easter: because King, in conjunction with the local churches, had organized a boycott. If we couldn't shop at those stores by entering the front door, then we wouldn't patronize them.
Buying new clothes at Easter was a big deal among Southern black people. It was the time when we got new outfits, including underwear, shoes, purses, hats and gloves.
Even more shocking, was that the strategy called for us to wear blue jeans that Easter Sunday in 1962. Back then, little black girls did not wear pants to church. But it represented a visible financial boycott of the stores that discriminated against black people. King knew that this would be a hard sell to the black community, but that it would deliver an essential and direct hit to our oppressors.
I never met King, but my father's vivid descriptions of the meetings to organize the boycott, and the act of wearing jeans that Easter, had me believing in my young mind that I had actually met the great man.
My father, just three years younger than King, spoke of him as the scholarly man and genius that he was -- and as though he were his good friend, not just a great orator and leader. If there was an opportunity to hear King preach, you grabbed it. Intellect combined with eloquence, principals of non-violence and civil disobedience and his determination to end discrimination made for a stunning combination.
I wonder if King, who would have been 70 today, might have been the elder statesman on the President's Commission on Race. What would the man make of this nation in 1999, more than 30 years after his death at the hands of an assassin?
What would he think about all the streets named after him? Nice gestures indeed, but King was a man of substance. Stamps, holidays and streets were not in his master plan.
King advocated diversity, for an end to discrimination. His "dream" has not come to fruition. But neither are we in the nightmare that some might suggest.
Surveys show that most people simply "talk the talk" rather than "walking the walk" around the diversity that King dreamed of. Even with the talk, most of us spend the majority of our time with people who look like us, not with those who may reflect the diversity that we tout.
So, I will honor the anniversary of King's birth as I have even in the years before it became a federal holiday. I will shed tears over the loss of a great man, a philosopher, and the lack of knowledge that most have of his life and legacy.
And I will remember that the best way to honor Dr. King is by listening to or reading some of his great speeches and by "walking the walk" of diversity.
Actions do speak louder than words.
Akilah Monifa is a free-lance writer in Oakland, Calif., and a contributor to the book "Seductions of Justice: Lesbian Legal Theories and Practices." (Routledge Press, 1999).
Pub Date: 1/18/99