Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was brutally assassinated on April 4, 1968, at 6:05 pm by a racist piece of trash, James Earl Ray. On May 2, 2000, South Carolina became the last state to officially recognize Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, as a national holiday.
And so, every year around that time, Americans have a long, three-day weekend to commemorate Martin Luther King’s vision of racial justice and a peaceful, equitable world for all.
It may be possible that, when Dr. King was leading the crowd at the Washington Memorial and proclaiming, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last,” his subtext wasn’t, “In forty years, it’s gonna be Martin Luther King Day at P.C. Richard! Get an extra ten percent off all major appliances!”
Or when he led 2,000 marchers from Selma, Alabama, to fight for the rights of African-Americans to vote, he probably didn’t say to himself, “after I’m gone, I sure hope Old Navy sells discounted socks on my birthday!”
And when he roused his troops for the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, he most likely didn’t sit quietly in prayer and say to his God, “Lord, I am thy servant. Make me thy vessel. Please… in 60 years, I beseech thee, have Macy’s open up a 48-hour sale on my birthday weekend. Make sure anyone and everyone gets 40 to 60 percent off of any item in the store, including clothing! Also, will you give an extra cash-back incentive to those who use their Discover card? Lord… thank you!”
I can only imagine the original genesis of this American tradition—a scene that doubtless took place behind closed doors at a bunch of executive offices throughout the country in the mid-80s when MLK Day became a federal holiday. (Greed was good, after all.)
Scene: Acme International Headquarters, Raunchville, America
The CEO of Acme International, a paunchy, womanizing troglodyte with a goatee, is sitting with his favorite marketing lackey, Freddie, the human equivalent of a string bean who sweats profusely.
CEO: “Sweaty Freddie—they gave that lunatic commie King a national holiday.”
Freddie: “Yeah. I know. Liberal jackasses takin’ over.”
CEO: “Well, I see rainbows and butterflies.”
Freddie: “Whaddya mean, boss?
The CEO slaps Freddie upside his head.
“You moron. It’s a national holiday! People won’t be working! We can sell tons of crap! Get those clowns from marketing in a room and make it hardcore. I don’t want anyone leaving that room until you get a campaign for Martin Luther King Day together.”
Cut to the marketing team’s main conference room. It’s 9 x 12, hot and cramped. Sweaty Freddie is glistening.
Freddie: “C’mon, guys. We gotta get this done. Throw me some ideas. We’ve been here for 23 hours, and we got nothin’.”
Marketing Slug #1: “Damn. I’m hungry. How about “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we got free cd players at last?”
Freddie: “No! We’re trying to sell stuff, not give it away!”
Marketing Slug #2: “Uhm, how about… I have a dream today! That this Monday, the grandsons of Georgia slaveowners and the grandsons of Georgia slaves can meet at Domino’s for a discounted pizza, stuffed cheesy bread, and a two-liter Coke!”
They sit for fifty more minutes, a crew of empty-headed misery. When….
And just like that, after 24 hours, an idea was born. An idea that would spread like a northern California wildfire to The Gap to Macy’s to JC Penney’s to thousands of national and regional brands, an idea that was plucked out of the universal unconscious, the brilliance of which will never be surpassed:
“Remember Dr. King’s Dream. Then: go buy stuff!”
In other words, “Say yes to equal rights for all! So you don’t have to feel guilty about getting twenty percent off of a Bed, Bath and Beyond blankie!”
I doubt that Dr. King would agree.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on our history, on our democracy, on the idea that we are striving to do better, to work towards a better world in which there can be liberty and justice for all… At least in theory. In practice, we’re much more motivated by the actual ethos at the core of U.S. politics… capitalism. So it’s not really a surprise that every long weekend, regardless of what it is meant to commemorate, is used as an opportunity to get the American people to spend, spend, spend.
But maybe that’s not the best use of your time or resources. Maybe, just maybe, you might want to use this day away from the grind to reflect on the world we live in, the freedoms we possess, and what you can do to keep us moving in the right direction. Or as it says in the U.S. Constitution, “to form a more perfect union.”
So do yourself a favor. On January 16th, remember Martin Luther King, Jr’s message of equality for all of God’s children.
And wait until the following weekend to buy your washer, dryer, or bluetooth thingy, discounted or not.
And Dr. King would approve.