by Michael P Coleman

Three or four careers ago, way back in the early 1990s, I was a program manager at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. One of my projects was the university’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr Day Symposium. The federal holiday was in its infancy, and U of M made a commitment, in concert with the King family, to preserve the original spirit of the holiday.

Over the course of the three years I managed the Symposium, we grew the event into a comprehensive, campus-wide initiative that incorporated programs from a variety of academic units, other campus-based organizations, and community groups. We brought in dynamic keynote speakers (rebranded “MLK Memorial Lecturers” to satisfy the ego of my former, PhD-brandishing boss) ranging from former surgeon general Jocelyn Elders to Dr. Cornel West.

We welcomed performers like The Winans, The Sounds Of Blackness, and Yolanda Adams to campus for sold out concerts, offering students discounted tickets and gold circle, premium seating. Classes were cancelled for the day, and we took pride in a event that spanned several weeks and bled into Black History Month by the time I handed the Symposium’s reins to my successor in 1996.

Each year, I chaired a MLK Symposium planning committee comprised of U-M faculty, staff, and students, and one of our in-jokes was “One of these days, we’ll be seeing TV ads for a MLK Day furniture sale,” having seen other federal holidays, like Labor Day, Memorial Day, Presidents Day, and the 4th of July, similarly denigrated.

Sadly, that day has arrived. I got a “4 Day Sale” postcard from a regional furniture chain in the mail the other day, and the sale’s four days span this year’s MLK Day Holiday Weekend.

I am torn, as I’m looking for a new chair for my great room, and I love the 20% store wide pricing and the 36 months no interest financing that’s available on my recliner of choice.

However, I don’t think such sales are in the spirit of MLK Day.

I think those who survived the civil rights movement, and their descendants, should honor King and his memory by positioning ourselves in the service of others. As members of the King family used to say, MLK Day should be a day on, NOT a day off.

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