If you scroll back through the years, you'll find this post just two years ago. But, as the post itself insists, bringing back the story is something that needs to be done annually at a predominately white and self-confessedly Christian college. This morning, I'm saying it again.
Not until I came home from school yesterday, walked to the front of the house, pulled back the brass door of the mail box, and discovered it empty did I realize that it was a holiday, Martin Luther King Day. Not until then.
We don't celebrate MLK Day at this Christian college for a good reason--because the semester began just a week ago, and if we were to give the students their first Monday off, a ton of them would simply stay home for the first half week or so, some of them for good reasons, others for bad. Furthermore, if the college would shut down on MLK Day, boat loads of students would head up to the Twin Cities or west to Denver or wherever, putting literally hundreds on the roads, mid-winter. Students would spend all sorts of cash goofing off, and risk their lives in what could well be horrible travel weather. They could be killed.
What's more, our non-compliance isn't really racist since we don't celebrate Labor Day either. School always starts before summer's last fling, so for thirty-some years I haven't had a Labor Day when I wasn't laboring. I teach on Labor Day. I teach on MLK Day. It just makes good sense not to shut things down, good economic sense.
When I was a college sophomore, four of us went to Florida over spring break to catch some sun. We pulled into Ft. Lauderdale late at night, had made no reservations, so ended up looking for a place to stay at an hour--and a time of year--when finding a room wasn't exactly a breeze.
I don't know how on earth we ended up where we did, but I remember the place very clearly--it seemed to me then to be an abandoned military barracks, at least that's what it looked like, rafters for ceilings. We went into the office. We were third in line. I remember being anxious and we sure weren't picky, believe me.
The group in front was from Notre Dame--I remember that. Four guys. The seedy old man behind the desk gave them a key. But then, horror!--the couple in front of us got turned down. "Sorry," the guy said. "You saw it--that was the last room."
That meant, of course, we had to look elsewhere. Once the couple left, there we stood, bereft. We too started to walk out.
"Where you going?" the guy said. "I still got a room." Wink and a smile. "We don't take their kind here."
That young couple in front of us were black.
I'd never experienced anything close to that before. I'd heard about it, read about it, wondered about it--but it had happened right in front of me. Besides, my father had believed that MLK was an leftie agitator who people claimed had buddied up with known communists. I grew up in Wisconsin in the early Sixties, when the shadow of Joseph McCarthy still loomed over politics. I'm sure that my wonderful, God-fearing father--one of the sweetest men I ever knew, honestly--probably believed that Joe McCarthy was a far better man than this Martin Luther King.
Were he alive, my father would probably still have all kinds of trouble celebrating MLK Day. It would bug him no end. He might well appreciate the fact that we don't celebrate. Yet, no one I know would doubt my father's deep and abiding Christian faith.
There are good reasons why this Christian college doesn't celebrate the holiday, and I understand them. But I also know that historically for my people, who surely do like to watch the dollars, it's much, much easier to work on MLK Day than it is to remember the man or his vision because what there is to remember of King's time for many, many white evangelical Christians isn't pretty at all, it's racist.
David Brooks is in South Carolina now, and yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, in the New York Times, he speculated about the folks he'd been meeting, especially the mood of their rallies, like last night's debate. He says that the audiences want "a restoration" because they're sure that American once had strong values, "but we have gone astray." They believe we need to return to the values we once had, Brooks says.
Brooks doesn't disagree with that assessment, but he also says he wonders if the people he's been visiting have become "the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return."
There are many good, good reasons for our not celebrating Martin Luther King Day, but at this mostly white Christian college, it behooves us, every year, to rethink our motives because there are also many, many good reasons--moral reasons--to remember both who he was and who we were and maybe still are.