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Commentary: How to make MLK day universal

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Jan. 18, 2004 at 3:43 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- It's been 18 years since the Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday became a federal holiday, and five years since New Hampshire became the 50th state to make it a holiday for state workers. Yet, in 2004, 29 percent of employers give their staffs the day off with pay, according to a survey of 339 Human Resources executives by publisher BNA Inc.

Surprisingly, few non-black workers seem to mind. Not surprisingly, some blacks feel that this apathy toward King's birthday is a sign of disrespect. Black comedian Chris Rock said, "You gotta be pretty racist to not want a day off from work."

Fortunately, one simple change in the holiday could end this racial divisiveness and unite workers of all colors in demanding a paid holiday honoring King.

The federal holiday currently falls on the third Monday in January. In 2004, that's Jan. 19. It's a great time for a holiday -- if you live in Honolulu or Key West. In many parts of the country, however, mid-January is the worst point of the winter. In Chicago, for instance, the coldest day of the year on average is Jan. 18. North of, say, Florida, the weather makes planning parades, outdoor speeches or picnics quite dicey.

The popularity of the holiday differs by latitude. BNA found that "By region, organizations located in the Southern United States are most likely to designate Jan. 19 as a paid holiday (44 percent), whereas employers in the North Central region are least likely to do so (15 percent)."

Besides, by the middle of January, most employees have had at least four official days off in the preceding seven weeks (New Year's, Christmas and two for Thanksgiving).

Many get Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve as paid holidays, too. Plus, quite a few took some vacation time in November or December. In contrast, mid-January is one of the most intense times of the year for doing business.

Finally, Presidents' Day (another not terribly popular winter holiday) is coming in the middle of February.

The result is that workers at most schools, government agencies and banks get a paid holiday. In contrast, 93 percent of manufacturing firms expect their employees to punch the clock.

Numerous blacks in the private sector, though, wish to honor King. Many do so by using up a vacation day or one of their limited "floating holidays," or by just calling in sick.

That the day is turning into an unofficial holiday for black workers but few others poses difficult dilemmas for many managers. Should you risk delays by postponing important meetings that would otherwise be scheduled for the third Monday in January? Or should you go ahead and make crucial decisions with few of your black employees in the room?

The solution to this kind of unintended racial divisiveness is to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday more attractive to everybody. Liberate it from its unimaginative dependence on his birthday. There's plenty of precedent for that. The only other man to have a holiday celebrating his birthday is Jesus Christ.

Even George Washington and Abe Lincoln had their birthdays collapsed together into the generic Presidents' Day.

Instead of commemorating the day when King was born, follow the precedent set by Columbus Day. We don't celebrate Columbus on the day of his birth, but on the anniversary of his greatest feat, reaching the New World on Oct. 12, 1492.

Similarly, we could commemorate what might be King's most memorable achievement: his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.

If we moved the King holiday to the Monday a week before Labor Day, it would suddenly become hugely popular. Everybody would want to take the last Monday in August off.

This would also rebalance our holiday calendar. It's dysfunctional that we currently have three holidays in the months of January and February, but none in the two months between the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

Having two consecutive three-day weekends at the end of summer wouldn't disrupt business much, because the week before Labor Day already ranks with the post-Christmas week as one of the slowest periods of the year.

Many people already consider the end of August a good time for a vacation. Europeans have found that making August the semi-official vacation month works well. With our shorter vacations, we could make the week before Labor Day a semi-expected vacation time, just as the week between Christmas and New Year's already is.

This year Labor Day will be Sept. 6, so the MLK holiday would fall, under this plan, a week earlier -- Aug. 30. This schedule would allow workers to take a 10-day vacation running from Saturday, Aug. 28, through Labor Day, yet use only four vacation days.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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