Nobody can say that the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. is not being observed with what they call down in some parts of Georgia "speechifying."
In Washington alone, people are rejoicing at some 50 different events, including the "Let Freedom Ring" video series, sermons in churches, ceremonies at the State Department and embassies, memorial services at universities, fashion show luncheons and even a "Living the Dream" disco and awards ceremony at the Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Center restaurant row" tonight. And all over the country, everyone from schoolchildren to politicians is contributing fame to the name.
But on this Sunday, which stands between Martin Luther King's real birthday (Friday, Jan. 15) and the official observance of his birthday as a national holiday (tomorrow), it might be worthwhile remembering and perhaps reviving an old way of celebrating a national leader who was also a Georgian, at least part-time.
Back in 1929, according to Washington Post health columnist Victor Cohn's wonderful little 1955 book, "Four Billion Dimes," the new Warm Springs, Ga., polio treatment center couldn't even pay Sears & Roebuck for its pots and pans. The center's president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even hired a fundraiser, but after the stock market crash there weren't as many philanthropists as before.
Even after Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover for the presidency of the United States, not many people were able, or willing, to foot the bill for what became, in 1938, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, despite the efforts of Basil O'Connor, Roosevelt's law partner. Finally Carl Byoir, a New York public relations man on a visit to the president at Thanksgiving at Warm Springs, suggested a President's Birthday Ball -- to be held all over the country to benefit the polio foundation.
O'Connor told Cohn that Democrats were the core of the celebration and added, "The amazing thing is how well the money was spent. Little if any was stolen or used for politics."
The ball was held on Roosevelt's 52nd birthday, Jan. 30, 1934, in New York, Washington, Chicago and dozens of other cities, and raised $1,016,443. After that, the annual birthday balls became the biggest January social event -- Roosevelt inaugurations, after all, only came four times, but the balls honored him once a year.
In the 1930s Washingtonians danced ("that others might walk," as the slogan went) at multiple balls in most of the major hotels. The 1936 Washington ball was among the first where Hollywood stars -- Ginger Rogers, Robert Taylor and Jean Harlow -- lit up the festivities. Balls rolled all over the country: Sonja Henie skated through one at the Waldorf-Astoria, Jeanette MacDonald sang in Washington, Jane Withers performed in Chicago. It seemed as though Al Jolson sang for "Mammy" everywhere.
Money raised by successive balls (until Roosevelt's death in 1945 during his fourth term as president) and the national March of Dimes (named by comedian Eddie Cantor) cared for polio victims and eventually financed research for the vaccine that now prevents the plague.
In 1982, the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, the successor organization, held a ball to celebrate FDR's 100th birthday and raised $70,000. Nowadays, the March of Dimes concentrates its fund raising on the Mothers March of Dimes, this year to be held next weekend, Jan. 22-24.
But nobody has a birthday ball anymore.
So why doesn't the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, Walter Fauntroy, a close friend and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., take on the O'Connor role and spark a nationwide ball to rejoice in the birthday of the great leader and to raise money for the human rights for which he gave his life -- the right to food, to shelter, to vote, to go to school, to be treated with dignity and to be represented at law.
To make any money for the rights cause, tickets for the ball would have to cost somewhat more than the $7.50 the first ball cost, but then, Depression II isn't here yet.
We'd need some stars, of course, and a few fundraisers and publicity types. And it wouldn't work unless Coretta Scott King could be persuaded to lead out the first dance in Atlanta. But it could be a wonderful thing, not only for the money it would raise, but for the people it would bring together -- which is, after all, what the word society really means.