Memorial day gets lost in political fog

By Mark McGowan

If a picture does indeed tell a thousand words, the one I have in mind certainly fits the bill.

A little slab of Kodak processing shows a friend of mine who was an exchange student in Germany last semester sitting on the crumbling Berlin Wall wearing a Chicago Cubs hat and waving.

No matter how inconsequential my buddy sitting on the wall is in respect to the whole situation over there, it’s what I’ll always remember about the wall going down. This photo will probably show up in my head each time I think about the wave of freedom splashing across the world.

But this business of remembering freedoms —with Americans cheering changes abroad—and the way they were gained seems to have gone a bit astray here at home. It was only four days ago that the country took time out to remember an American champion of freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—but was it the way he would have wanted it?

Eightteen years after his death, Dr. King was honored by a legal holiday in his name, meant to remember his life, his work and his dream of a country where people of all races and backgrounds could unite.

Unfortunately, the day has become a political agent for none other than politicians looking for a little press, good or bad.

Consider Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley, following the tradition set by the late Harold Washington and previous mayor Eugene Sawyer, announces he will hold a memorial breakfast for Dr. King.

Daley’s announcement is followed by some black aldermen protesting his decision, claiming it’s not right for a white (from Bridgeport, one of the places Dr. King marched through in the ‘60s) to initiate such a breakfast. Daley’s supporters countered by saying Daley would have been damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

Consider Rockford, my hometown. As the King holiday passed, and awareness was raised, the Rockford Register Star printed a series on the lives of middle-class blacks in Rockford. The articles portrayed various black citizens whose incomes exceed about $25,000 a year and live in Rockford’s white-dominated east side.

However, the Register Star seems to paint a picture that these people wish they were white—or at least something other than black. Where did they get such a ridiculous conclusion? Word after word in story after story works to draw lines between blacks and whites based on income.

I wonder if the backers of the King holiday could have seen the politics and bickering that would come to surround it if they would have backed so hard. After all, Dr. King stood for unity, not division.

I spent most of my elementary school years in a desegregated school named after Dr. King in a black neighborhood, where, years before the holiday existed, we presented a program devoted to him. Young children of all races joined hands and sang songs like “We Shall Overcome.” It was a true show of unity – no politics involved.

Dr. King dreamt that one day everybody would be able to live together in a colorless harmony. It’s a shame that the holiday honoring him has been mangled by politicians and seems only to further divide us.