This Monday marks the first national observance of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, and as many people have discovered, it's one thing to struggle for a holiday, and another thing to celebrate and maintain it.
Probably because the nation has declared so few nationally recognized holidays recently, most Americans cannot remember the rigors and problems of institutionalizing them and may be under the illusion that creating a national observance is a snap. But it actually involves lots of details, money and coordination, and initially all of our holidays probably brought with them some difficulties.
The Martin Luther King holiday has not been without its share of problems. First of all, the commission created by Congress to oversee the national observance fell short of its economic goals. Although it set a target of $1.5 million, it collected about $400,000, an amount that includes $300,000 raised from private, mostly corporate sources.
The woeful lack of money has engendered disagreement about the cause of the problem, with reasons ranging from commission officials starting late to the general climate of federal cutbacks and business slowdowns. "We really weren't about fund-raising," said James Karantonis, director of the commission's Washington office.
The lack of grass roots appeals to the black community as a part of the overall financial strategy perturbed some blacks. According to Washington businessman Kenneth Vallis, "Most blacks would be willing to make a big sacrifice to make sure the holiday and its significance were put in correct perspective. But nobody asked us."
In addition, several black professionals have complained that they worked as unpaid volunteers, particularly during the years when singer Stevie Wonder led annual demonstrations here to get the holiday legislation passed. Now, they say, whites are getting most of the paid work connected with the holiday observances.
"Those of us who are in the public relations business were never asked to submit a bid or proposal," said Lavonia Prettyman Fairfax, who owns Pizazzz Communications here. "I'm not saying all contracts should go to black people; I think they should at least be asked to present their plan and may the best person win." Discounting that such a response may sound like sour grapes, Fairfax added: "We're not mad, we are more hurt, disappointed and betrayed."
Money was also the issue for critics who complained that Monday night's star-sprinkled gala at the Kennedy Center, put on by Stevie Wonder, will be a glitzy rich folks' affair because too few $35 tickets were allocated. Ticket prices are set for $750, $400, $100, and $35. "The concert will exclude the masses of black folks whom King worked for and who marched in the cold to help get the bill passed," said a person who has worked with the commission.
Donna Brazille, a consultant to the Stevie Wonder organization, said from 400 to 500 seats among the Opera House's 2,300 have been underwritten by several corporations for selected young people, senior citizens, march staffers and volunteers who worked in earlier marches.
Despite these minor controversies, the King holiday in the District promises to be celebrated with great aplomb. About 60 separate events, most of them free and open to the public, will have been held by the time the ambitious, 10-day King celebration ends next Monday. Mayor Marion Barry, national special events co-chairman for the Federal Holiday Commission, is hosting the nation's major diplomatic reception today, underwritten by a $25,000 contribution from Pepsico.
It's appropriate that the District have an enthusiastic celebration that reflects the special place it has in its heart for Martin Luther King. It was in Washington that King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. In 1965, he led a march for District home rule, setting in motion the machinery that eventually helped lead to a new phase of political independence for the city. Three years later, on March 31, 1968 -- four days before his death in Memphis -- he announced in a speech at the Washington Cathedral his intention to lead a poor people's march that would be focused on economic justice.
"We owe a great deal to the life and legacy of King," said Clifton Smith, secretary of the District and chairman of the city's King Holiday Commission. "This holiday is a major feat and tribute to a superpatriot, who we think is America's greatest hero."
Despite the wrinkles in this first celebration, which next year should be all ironed out, the excitement, participation and anticipation are high. And perhaps in 20 years, no one will remember the difficulties in establishing the King holiday, but instead will remember that once a man walked among us who was a living symbol that all people truly are created equal.