Got MLK?

Yesterday Los Angeles celebrated Martin Luther King Day 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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.