Blogs > Cliopatria > Dear Chris ...

Jan 17, 2005 12:30 am

Dear Chris ...

My friend, Chris, is a remarkable man. As a young African American, he grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the South's most race conscious cities. But his mother married a white man when Chris was a child and, as a result, he moves with an ease and grace between race cultures in the region that few others of us achieve. At a major private university in the South, he was elected student body president and, after spending the summer as a counselor at a camp for handicapped children, is now in his first year of law school at my alma mater. It thrills me to know that he is there, because I recall a time when his race would have barred his admission. Chris seems to live up to the promise of his name as well as any of us ever do. Recently, he wrote"Let's Get Rid of Martin Luther King Day" at Outside Report. I'm responding to him at Cliopatria.

I read your suggestion that we abolish the Martin Luther King holiday with interest. Your points – that no single American deserves a special holiday, that it insufficiently recognizes a long history of struggle by unknown and lesser known heroes and heroines in the civil rights cause, and that Americans neither know nor care why the holiday exists – are well taken. I suppose that most Americans will take today off, without any greater dedication to the struggle than they had yesterday.

There is, I think, a sort of provisional justification for the King holiday. Its establishment in the Reagan era seemed like a mere symbolic gesture amidst a sea of reactionary developments that many historians saw as analogous to the retreat from the first Reconstruction. Even so, symbolic gestures are important.

Consider this: In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Louis D. Brandeis to the Supreme Court. Wilson was, himself, no great cosmopolitan in ethnic relations and massive immigration from eastern and southern Europe would soon lead to severe immigration restrictions. But Brandeis's appointment to the Court was an important symbolic gesture. In 1932, President Hoover appointed Benjamin Cardozo to the Court, its second Jewish member. Cardozo served until his death in 1938 and Brandeis retired in 1939. When President Roosevelt appointed Felix Frankforter to succeed Brandeis, it created a public myth that there was a"Jewish seat" on the Supreme Court. So, in turn, Frankforter was succeeded, first, by Arthur Goldberg and , second, by Abe Fortas.

But, then, an interesting thing happened: In 1969, President Nixon deviated from the public myth and appointed a gentile to succeed Fortas. For the next 24 years, there were no Jewish justices of the Supreme Court. Things changed again in 1993 and 1994, when President Clinton nominated, first, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, then, Stephen Breyer to the Court. Ginsburg's appointment as the second female justice was particularly interesting because it undermined the myth that there was a female seat on the Court. Just as there is no female seat, there is no"Jewish seat" on the Court; neither would Jews or women be excluded from it; and there might be more than one Jewish or more than one female member of the Court. But, through the last fifty years, what is most interesting is that Jewish representation on the Court has drawn little public comment one way or the other.

That wasn't always the case. Justice James McReynolds was probably Wilson's worst appointment to the Court. There is no official photograph of its 1923-24 session because he refused to be photographed next to Justice Brandeis and, in 1932, McReynolds begged Hoover not"to afflict the Court with another Jew." In fact, Cardozo's appointment was one of Hoover's great acts of statesmanship. Cardozo was not only a Jew, would not only be a second Jewish member of the Court, but he was also a Democrat and had actively opposed Hoover's election as President in 1928. If only George Bush were Herbert Hoover! Cardozo was a brilliant jurist and Republican Senator William Borah of Idaho, fg's, urged the appointment"to strike a blow at anti-Semitism." Cardozo was confirmed without any opposition in the Senate.

My point in all this, I suppose, is that the nation works its way slowly, but inexorably, to the day when Dr. King's dream that we would all one day be judged and be judges, not by the color of our skin or condition of our gender, but by the content of our character. When I was a child, the celebrations of George Washington's Birthday and Abraham Lincoln's Birthday seemed to be fixtures on our national calendar. And, now, temporarily, there seems, in the succession of Thurgood Marshall by Clarence Thomas, to be an African American seat on the Supreme Court. But one day soon, there may be more than one African American on the Court; and, then, there may be none and, again, more than one. When we no longer take much notice of that fact, Dr. King's dream will be closer to reality and we won't have to remember him in a national holiday.

Best wishes always,

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More Comments:

William Harshaw - 1/18/2005

I agree symbols are important. There's some recurring historical process whereby a mere person, with all his or her faults, is selected as a symbol. The process must serve some social need, but it does an injustice to the person's peers (as Chris says). When the process occurs during the subject's lifetime, it may even be unfair to him, and definitely to the family. I suppose we need heroes, or saints for our civil religion, or models to emulate, or personifications of standards (does it relate to our scorn of deviants, as in Ron Robins article (

Jonathan Dresner - 1/17/2005

How about this: we name national days for several other crucial civil rights campaigners (Susan Anthony comes to mind immediately; also Frederick Douglas; Other 20th century figures will probably be a bit more controversial, but there's a couple who might work.). Then we can collapse the "vacation/shopping" holiday down to a single "president's day"-like non-event, leaving the actual days for study in school and public discussion.

Yes, the way we observe the holiday now understates its importance, and the focus on King is just a beginning place. But since we're not permitted, nationally, to observe religious festivals, we need civil holidays.