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Celebrating Dr. King’s birthday

By Grace Lee Boggs
Special to the Michigan Citizen

All over the country this week, schools, churches, universities and other community groups will be celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in many different ways.

Many, perhaps most, will recall Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the 1965 March on Washington. Some groups will organize community service activities.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Participants will sing “We shall overcome,” which has become the anthem of the civil rights movement because it proclaims to the world, “I am down but not out; I will bend but not break,” as Detroit activist Doc Holbrook put it recently in response to my column on disasters.

During Ronald Reagan’s administration, Michigan Congressman John Conyers and Motown musician Stevie Wonder led the campaign that won the King holiday.

I did not participate because I thought the holiday would draw so much attention to Dr. King as a charismatic leader that the role of rank and file activists would be overshadowed.

I was wrong. Over the years, the holiday has focused on Dr. King but it has also become a wonderful opportunity for reflection on his ideas and his leadership.

As a result, it is the one holiday on our national calendar that is unlikely to become an excuse for barbequing, fireworks or bargain shopping.

Over the years, I have grown a lot and I believe I have helped others grow by my participation in a number of MLK celebrations, e.g. at the University of Illinois, Urbana; University of Michigan; and Eastern Michigan University.

That is why, despite my limited mobility, I am going this year to Iowa to speak at Grinnell College where my old friend, Detroiter Kesho Scott, has taught for years.

I have chosen, “What time is it?” for the title of my speech because I believe that we are living at a time when, more than ever, we need to commit ourselves to the radical revolution of values that MLK advocated in his l967 “Break the Silence” speech.

We need a revolution not only against racism, King said, but against materialism and militarism. We must replace our thing-oriented society with a person-oriented society.

Truer words have rarely been spoken. Our materialism, or our decision as a new nation to pursue rapid economic growth, was understandable two centuries ago. But it led us to commit the world’s most grievous sin, enslaving Black people, and it has now ended up with global warming and the planetary emergency of hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and the possible extinction of all life on Earth.

Our militarism has not only trapped us in two unwinnable Mideast wars and the probability of another 9/11 because of our drone murders of countless innocent men, women and children.

It has also encouraged mass violence in our cities and small communities like Newtown, Conn.

In the 1960s, I was more a supporter of Malcolm X than of MLK because I thought that what was involved was only the tactical question of violence or non-violence. While I am still a supporter and admirer of Malcolm, I now have a much deeper appreciation of the leadership of Dr. King because his holiday has given us so many opportunities to think about the importance of spiritual leadership in revolutionary times.

It is because the Dr. King holiday has given me these opportunities to revisit Dr. King that I am able to view the American Revolution as a time to grow our souls.

So thank you, John Conyers and Stevie Wonder!

Contact Grace Lee Boggs at


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