Are you under-celebrating Martin Luther King Day?

Photo from the Library of Congress

Monday, January 15 is the day that the United States celebrates Martin Luther King’s birthday. I think it’s worth celebrating Dr. King because…well, because it feels good. It feels good to remember the joy of working together in community for justice. He was not just a “leader” – he was connected to a radical and profound movement that lives on. He was one articulate leader among many beloved and connected activists.

You may be feeling distressed, angry, or even deeply alarmed at the political events of the last week, particularly the failure to pass the voting rights act here in the USA. I certainly was. This year, in some ways I feel more alone with it because I’m minimizing my exposure to social media, where I used to vent and kvetch with like-minded people whom I haven’t seen in years. I do love lots of those folks, and I want to stay in touch with them, but…

Social media is not good for giving you positive energy and hope or generating action. Songs are much better! Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday song is the best medicine – so unavoidably joyous! So I looked it up on Youtube and found just what I needed: This 1980’s video of the huge “all-star celebration” of Dr. King’s birthday with musical royalty of the 80s.

I’m a child of the 60s. For me, each star represents one of many rainbow tribes:

  • LIZ TAYLOR AND PATTIE LABELLE: They stand for the ladies and the gays, and particularly for ladies who love big hair and eye shadow.
  • BEN VEREEN: Beautiful gentle black men in the house! He also represents the multi-talented dancer’s tribe, and there’s a bunch of Ailey dancers onstage too. Also he’s a loving father (you have to watch the video to see what I mean), for all you fathers out there.
  • THE POINTER SISTERS: Black family solidarity! Heroines of my youth, they started their career in the Bay Area, where I grew up. They wore outfits cobbled together from the Goodwill, just like me and my family! Thrift shop way of life, represent.
  • DIANA ROSS: Brilliance from the projects, yes all little black girls have a queen inside them, plus she has her hair natural and frizzy in the 80s, she can choose how she wants to look and rock EVERY version of herself from 1950 to the present.  
  • JOAN BAEZ: She’s actually Mexican and Scottish and represents that weird American tradition, folk singing. She also stands up for the rights of trees, who cannot speak for themselves.
  • PETER, PAUL, AND MARY: White geek peaceniks with a good heart.
  • BOB DYLAN: Jewish brilliance & poetry!
  • NEIL DIAMOND: Beloved of drag kings everywhere for his straight white maleness, another Jewish poet (he started writing poems to impress girls in Junior High).

I could go on all day!

Let’s face it. Working for justice is an endless task that will never be done. We are going to have to find sustainable, joyful ways to do it. And we have to live our lives, do our jobs, feed our families along the way. What else is there to do? Any contribution you can make in your local community could be one piece of the bigger picture.

I struggle with a tendency to overwork that can undermine every vision, every project that I give birth to. We can’t afford to let that happen. Means and ends need to have some relationship to each other, otherwise we are destroying our present moment for a future that isn’t here yet.

How we do what we do matters. The “how” has a physical component that our frenetic culture wants us to ignore – it includes us, ourselves, our bodies, our spirit. Dance and the Alexander Technique have been lifesavers for me. I find that once I am aligned and rested, the desire for and vision of justice becomes an energizing thing, not a distressing one.

There is always more work to do – but what could be more joyous? Today, I need the joy of directing myself towards a higher plane, standing with my feet in the mud and mess, knowing I have limitations and visions all living inside the same body. When we are good friends with our bodies, we know when to fight, when to rest, and when to celebrate.

I had a vision of the Martin Luther King birthday as a national holiday. I mean, I saw that. I imagined it. I wrote about it because I imagined it and I saw it and I believed it. So I just kept that in my mind till it happened.”

– Stevie Wonder

“True peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

– Martin Luther King
MLK Jr. mural commissioned by the Tabernacle of Deliverance for All People and painted by Estos, Frederick Douglass at West 154th Street, Harlem, 2009, Library of Congress

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