What would Martin Luther King Jr. think?

I wonder what Martin Luther King would think of what we have wrought in his name?

A day off work for postal carriers and some federal employees?

I doubt if he would have cared much about that.

In my town children sang to senior citizens in places and assembling bags of food for needy people. Students at Iowa Central in Fort Dodge held a short “Unity March” gathering. Perhaps not exactly what King had in mind when he staged the March on Washington protest on Aug. 28, 1963, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to have your name forever aligned with people doing something good for others?

“I have a dream …” – we all know the words.

King’s dream wasn’t necessarily to be nice and helpful, but to be – aggressively – non-segregated. Unlike some others in the civil rights movement, he thought it could be done peacefully.

He wasn’t completely right. In 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., epicenter of racial unrest, a KKK klansmen bombed a Baptist church, killing four young girls. Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, died in the fire. Their names are long-forgotten, it seems, but their horrible sacrifice was as instrumental as any of Dr. King’s speeches in forging change.

On MLK Day morning, I pulled up a story on them, and found myself locking into their black and white photographs. They were about the same age as children bagging food at our middle school that same morning. Just as bright and beautiful. What might they have done with their lives if they were allowed to live them?

It seems that the big controversy today in whether school should be in session on Martin Luther King’s birthday holiday. Most Iowa schools had classes, after some opposition to the idea. I read many articles claiming that not calling off school is “an insult to King’s memory.”

Bull.

King was a man who knew the value of an education, and a big part of his fight was for students of color to have equal opportunities to the classroom. Would he have wanted kids recognizing him by sitting around the house eating junk food and watching TV?

What person in their right mind would want their legacy to be associated with a day in which no learning takes place in America?

Every school should be open on the holiday, and they should all be doing service projects, their own little contribution to the betterment of mankind. Now that, my friends, is a legacy.

A lot of holidays are less about meaningful reflection of what the day stands for than a free pass from work or a marketing gimmick for big box stores, anyway. Did you put Columbus Day to great use?

Holidays are just another day on the calendar unless people act to give them some meaning. In many places, people do nothing to honor veterans on Veterans Day, and increasingly, Thanksgiving has become more about shopping than it is about giving thanks. Many of the local schools took pains to make MLK Day mean something.

You could debate King’s legacy forever, and some will. Was he a saint?

Not exactly. And behind his confident words, he is said to have been a man wracked by condradictions and self-doubt. His personal weaknesses are well-documented. But he was a man needed desperately by his times, who rose to the occasion, as have all great heroes in American history.

Today we operate on something of a sanitized memory of King. The power structure wants King to be “a warm civic memory,” a look-how-far-we’ve-come icon, not a radical reminder of our nation’s social shortcomings – which are not yet fully resolved even today.

What would King have thought of gays being denied the right to marry in 2014, or bright young Latino students still being denied a Dream Act path to American citizenship by a Congress still made up largely of rich, bitter old white men?

Still, you will recall that King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, to foresee the country as a place where his “four little children … will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

On this MLK Day, children sang. They bagged. They marched. They helped. Every shade of skin possible together, and no one even noticing that diversity any more. Every one different, but all the same – our children. King couldn’t have foreseen what his birthday would become, but he did see this equality coming.

Thank God we have come this far.

Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune and a former Messenger staff writer.