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Commentary: MLK’s real birthday

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday would have been today. This may surprise you, since his “official” birthday is next Monday. We celebrate it then, so some people can have a long weekend.

My guess is that for millions of Americans, the meaning of the Martin Luther King Junior holiday is that the banks and post offices are closed and kids get a day off from school. I also suspect strongly that the great civil rights leader wouldn’t have liked being turned into a sanitized plastic icon. 

He spent a fair amount of time in Michigan. He led a huge freedom march in Detroit two months before the famous one in Washington, and tried out a version of the “I have a dream” speech at Cobo Hall. That was half a century ago this summer.

MLK has now been dead longer than he was alive, and it is easy to forget how young he was. Had he not caught that bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King could easily still be alive and giving presidents hell.

He would have been 84 today. That’s the same age as John Conyers, who is still in Congress. King was about five years younger than Avern Cohn, who is still serving with distinction as a federal judge in Detroit. But King died at the ridiculously young age of 39.

Nobody can say for sure how his thinking would have evolved had he lived. People change and the world is a considerably different place than it was when he died, 45 years ago this spring.

But it seems reasonable to think he would have given every leader since considerable hell, including President Obama.

King was not a cartoon character who spoke only in memorable phrases meant to be inscribed on marble walls. He was in fact a flesh-and-blood human being.

But he never took, as Jesse Jackson observed this week, his eyes off the prize. He wasn’t just concerned with getting blacks the right to vote and sit at lunch counters and go to the same schools.

Maybe not even primarily concerned with that. He cared about poverty and exploitation and injustice. No politician supported him more than Lyndon Johnson. But long before he died, MLK had broken with LBJ over the Vietnam War.

President Obama will be officially inaugurated for a second term on King’s “official” birthday next week. Jesse Jackson, who actually knew and worked with Dr. King, believes that he would have been proud of that, yes.

But he thinks that he also would have been off, quote, “organizing mass civil disobedience to call the nation back to its senses, and to demand action against poverty, violence and the endless war.” And Jackson noted, “schools today are more segregated than in Dr. King’s time, but now no one talks about it.“

Well, if I had my way, kids wouldn’t get next Monday off from school. Instead, they’d spend part of the day reading things King actually wrote and said, such as this, a year before he died:

“This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” He wasn’t talking about Michigan or Detroit, or all of us. But in today’s world, he just as well might have been.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.