Got MLK?

Later today, “Los Angeles will celebrate Martin Luther King Day on Monday with a parade and community service work designed to honor the slain civil rights leader.”  All very well and good, but I can’t help thinking that the nation still hasn’t quite figured out how to honor King’s birthday.  This is a problem with many of our civic holidays — as important as they are, it is very hard for them to compete for media oxygen in today’s environment.  How do you celebrate, say, President’s Day?

So here’s a modest proposal, which I realize has drawbacks, but I thought I would offer it.

In today’s media environment, the only way for events to get publicity is to have some sort of entertainment value.  Fortunately enough, King Day’s mid-winter timing makes that easy for African-Americans.  One area of contemporary life where African-Americans have succeeded is in professional sports, and particularly in professional basketball.  I’m wondering whether an anchor event for King Day around the country in future years should be mid-day NBA games.  Here in Los Angeles, the Clippers played the Lakers on Saturday night (Clips, 102-94, if you are keeping score): would it really have been so difficult to schedule it at 12:30 on Monday afternoon, as occurs on so many holidays?  In New York, you could have the Knicks and Nets, of course: other cities could also have mid-day games.

The games would not be the sum of the day’s activities, but as I said, would constitute their anchor: they would bring thousands of people to downtown venues, which could then be used for the parades, festivals, and more serious events.

I suppose some might see the proposal as demeaning: here we are supposed to celebrate the life of one of America’s greatest leaders, and you are going to do it with basketball?  I can see the criticism, but I don’t think that it washes. I don’t think that the Lions and Cowboys playing on Thanksgiving reduces the significance of that day.  Ditto having the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend, or eating cherry pie on (the late, lamented) Washington’s Birthday.  Moreover, successful political mobilization often depends in some part upon entertainment: as historian Michael McGerr has shown in his wonderful book The Decline of Popular Politics, the reason why so many people voted in the late 19th century is that politics was fun.  That’s what gets people out.  Indeed, that’s what gets people out anywhere; that’s why one has church picnics and the like — something that Reverend King would have appreciated as much as anyone else.

What would he have thought about a special NBA day?  We can’t know, but the other day, reading a book about King to my daughter’s second-grade class, I learned that while growing up, young Martin’s friends called him “Will Shoot,” as in every time he gets the ball he will shoot.  Kobe Bryant could certainly appreciate that.


Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

11 thoughts on “Got MLK?”

  1. You anticipated my criticism. But I don’t have any good ideas.

    FWIW, we (mom, dad, 10-yo and 7-yo) will be reading Letter from Birmingham Jail after dinner. I don’t really expect that to take off, but a guy can dream.

  2. With all due respect, I think the commemoration of MLK should not be a trivial item. My concept, as proposed in my own blog, is to recognize Dr. King’s singular achievement – the non-violent overthrow of Jim Crow through the application of the nation’s founding documents to all citizens. Dr. King’s efforts need to be recognized for what they were – the reaffirmation of the Declaration and the Constitution, recognizing the equal rights of minorities. Educational events that make this point should be scheduled, as many are today, but with more focus, in cities and towns of all sizes. This would allow the generations to preserve the heritage of what Dr. King actually accomplished and how it was done. Very important, this heritage would be universally celebrated across the political spectrum.

  3. There are two differences between a special emphasis on basketball for MLK Jr. Day, and the Indy 500 coming on Memorial Day. They’re both pretty important.

    First, the Indy 500 isn’t on Memorial Day for the sake of memorializing our war dead. It’s that day because the weather in Indianapolis in May is pretty good, and most of the target audience will be able to make it out to the speedway or the TV set. If they wanted the race to be in September, it’d be on Labor Day.

    Second, there’s a question of privilege. Even if the Indy 500 fanbase is overwhelmingly, blindingly white, nobody (of any color) turns on the TV set that day and says, “oh boy, I guess this is the day we all set aside to do special white-person things.” The NFL is about 2/3rd African-American, but watching that predominantly black group play on Thanksgiving doesn’t make the day about how African-Americans are basically all about football. But you can cheapen a holiday memorializing a civil rights leader by saying, “Hey, basketball’s pretty popular among blacks. Here you go–special mid-day basketball on your special day, fellas!” Not that that’s what you meant, but that’s what will be heard. Also, “Look at all these black millionaires! You never saw this back in the bad old days, huh?” and “Wow, black guys sure are great at basketball.”

    The problem with encouraging, however implicitly or unintentionally, that kind of benign racial pigeonholing is that it always leads to the explicitly hostile kind of racial pigeonholing. I know there’s no bad intent here, but I think it’s a very bad idea.

  4. “So here’s a modest proposal …”

    Since everyone associates the words “a modest proposal” with the famous satirical essay by Swift, I highly recommend not describing a serious proposal using those words. People might mistake your suggestion for satire.

    And if you are being satirical, you also shouldn’t use those words, since it’s now a cliche.

  5. The use of “modest proposal” in this post makes me thing that there is some sort of satire involved that is flying over everyone’s heads. That, and the fact that the NBA already does this. Yesterday, eight NBA games began before 4:00 eastern time: Knicks-Magic and Bulls-Grizzlies at 1, Bucks-Sixers and Rockets-Wizards at 2, Blazers-Hornets at 3 (2 Central), Nets-Clippers at 3:30 (12:30 Pacific, and Hawks-Raptors at 4 p.m. There also were a number of college basketball games played during the afternoon, including Louisville-Marquette and Texas A&M-Missouri. Either a) this is some sort of elaborate satire; or b) it says something about the place of the NBA in popular consciousness compared to the NFL that Professor Zazloff’s idea already has been implemented and he hasn’t noticed.

    1. I wondered about the satire possibility given the “modest proposal” line, but I figured it wasn’t because it doesn’t really make sense as satire. But then I had no idea about the schedule, not really being an NBA fan. Was it part of some big NBA deal to ostentatiously link themselves to the holiday? If that’s the case, it’s (still) awful and I’d have preferred to have heard about it directly!

  6. Pre-Staples Center, when the team controlled the building (the Forum) the Lakers USED to play a home Monday MLK day matinee EVERY year. Interestingly, the attendance was always pretty low. It was a good game to go see Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar play if you had the day off.

  7. It is certainly true that the football games don’t trivialize Thanksgiving – but there was already a solid tradition of how to observe it; the football games just add to that.

    I can’t help being seriously bothered though by a basic assumption you are making. It seems to me that the focus on African Americans completely undermines what I had always taken as the core of King’s message. Getting them equal rights was his goal, but his approach resounds in one of the most quoted lines from his famous speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” So why are we focusing so hard on the color of people’s skins, practically to the exclusion of all else?

    Why not find a way to observe the day in ways that do not focus on ethnicity? My children’s school regularly schedules an in-service day – not for the teachers, with the kids getting a day off, but for the students, who are expected to use the day to participate in volunteer activities in the community, organized by the school. Why not use it to have students help at homeless shelters, Habitats for Humanity, and other kinds of charitable type work? Surely that would be much more meaningful than watching a basketball game?

  8. As I type this comment, this post is the most recent one on this blog, and it is about 48 hours old. Is this the reality community’s way of going black in opposition to SOPA? Wouldn’t making this explicit be a bit more useful? As it is, it just looks like y’all are shirking.

Comments are closed.