Not sure why, but today’s day of remembrance brought back memories of the time a holiday was first proposed honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. some thirty years ago (wow).
I was in high school at the time, on the cusp of the biggest social change of my lifetime, between the 1970s and 1980s. In the 70s, I remember being taught by hippies to love music, the earth, and one another.
We learned about racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and even got some indirect instruction about homophobia. I remember the day vividly. We were seated in our 2nd grade class, and someone derisively called someone else “gay.” We all laughed.
Then our teacher smiled, and asked everybody to come sit down on the floor next to her (she was beautiful and I was always first). Then she asked us if we knew what “gay” meant and someone said “yes, a really dumb person.”
She smiled again and looked at me. I beamed. “Gay means somebody who loves men,” I said. She corrected me. Then she turned to the class and asked “why in Heaven” it was considered an insult to love someone of the same sex.
We were stunned. Nobody had ever questioned things like that before. In fact, many of us had heard our own parents use similar, if not identical slurs. What was she saying – that our own parents were wrong?
I remember going home and checking this new information with my parents, who seemed a little concerned about my question, but confirmed its accuracy. Wow. “So is it like being racist?”
I don’t remember their answer, but I remember mine.
Then, in the 1980s, something changed. Reagan was elected, and there was a resurgence in national pride. Interestingly, though, this came alongside a real coarsening in our civic dialogue. Almost overnight, Russians, the poor, and anyone associated with labor unions became the enemy.
My teachers began to question out loud the morality or efficacy of social support systems, and the term “Welfare queen” began to enjoy widespread currency. PETCO was dissolved by Reagan and people cheered. Some years later Reagan made his “we begin bombing in five minutes” remark and it seemed like I was the only one furious.
I remember my 10th grade history teacher bringing in a former student who was one of the first people into Grenada. He told us how he landed, and faced no resistance from people he derided as gay in multiple ways throughout his presentation. The class, and my teacher, laughed and appaluded.
I think that was the first time I had ever been so furious I wanted to cry and throw up at the same time (which I almost did, in the Nurse’s office). Somehow the America I grew up in got replaced by a colder, meaner, and far more violent one (Bernhard Goetz was another hero I could never quite fathom).
It was in the mix of all these things that a holiday for Dr. King was proposed and met its first resistance. I remember teachers and parents saying out loud it was a waste of taxpayer dollars, that Dr. King had never held public office, and that “you can’t force your politics onto others.”
I realized that I would need arguments to support my position, and that’s when I began seriously studying for me instead of for school or someone else.
I argued back that this was a step towards healing the horrible history of race relations in this country, which prompted some (teachers, parents, and peers) to look at me and say, “what are you talking about?”
I said the holiday isn’t trying to “legislate a political point of view” but advance the promise of the Constitution. I was met then, as now, with cries about the free speech rights of conservatives and “playing the race card.”
As bad as this was for my social life and self-esteem, though, it’s nothing compared to what Dr. King faced, or any of the other folks who lost friends, careers, or their own lives to the cause of Civil Rights.
Maybe it’s recent events in Arizona, the state that was a hotbed of opposition to the federal holiday, that brought this all back for me. Maybe it’s having an African-American in the White House, or the way politics has become more contentious than I can ever recall.
At least now I know I’m not crazy, just a 70s kid. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone.