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A new way to honor MLK

January 17, 1997

Elsewhere on this page is a column by former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, who proposes making the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday a day of public service. We heartily applaud the proposal, but would encourage communities in this region to take it a step further. Whatever public service is done on this day should be done jointly, by citizens of all races.

We propose this for a number of reasons. Due to the increasing demands placed on our time by work and the chores of daily living, too many of us stick with what's easy, with what's familiar.

Changing our routine takes time that we don't seem to have, so we don't do it. As a result, we miss the chance to meet people of different races, who are more like us than they are different. If we worked once a year with people of different races to clean up a public park, or stock the shelves at a food bank, we might actually talk together and learn something about each other. We might actually want to make it more than a once-a-year thing.

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This is something we must do, unless we want the U.S. to become like the former nation of Yugoslavia, a place where hate hides in the weeds, waiting for an opportunity (tough economic times, perhaps) to jump out and stir up racial confrontations.

What's that you say? Hasn't it been 30 years since most of the major federal civil rights legislation was passed? Haven't we gotten past this yet?

Sad to say, we have not. Not as long as the murder trial of a celebrity like O.J. Simpson can divide public opinion along racial lines. Not as long as those fighting on behalf of Confederate flag license plates fail to see that what seems like an innocent attempt to preserve Southern history to some (mostly white) people seems to some other (mostly black) people like nostalgia for the days when slavery was legal. Not as long as the races are mostly separate, socially and otherwise, and suspicious of each other.

Kicking off such a movement will require some true leadership, of the kind that does what's right without counting the cost. A year from now, we'll see whether we have any of it here.

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