Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, a public holiday solemnly observed by some, deeply resented by others, and pretty much ignored by most. It was established by the Reagan administration in 1986, when by chance I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, the murdered civil rights leader's home town.
The decision to honour Dr King's memory that way was surprisingly contentious. Even in Atlanta there were plenty of good ol' boys who thought it an insult to the Stars and Stripes, or at any rate the Confederate flag, and they were mostly the kind of folk who strenuously denied being racist. "Ah don't have a prarblm," they used to say.
In the Deep South, "a prarblm" was a commonly-used euphemism. "Ah don't have a prarblm but ah know folks who do," was the refrain of white-collar racists everywhere. And lest ah start sounding sanctimonious, it's worth noting the results of Mori survey published this week, which finds that in Britain, four out of 10 white people do not want a black neighbour. The prarblm is not only an American one.
Anyway, in January 1986 I joined an extraordinary cavalcade to mark the inaugural Martin Luther King Day. Several hundred thousand people marched through downtown Atlanta, along thoroughfares mostly named after the peach tree. A great deal of Atlanta is named Peachtree this or that, incidentally.
To ask for directions in Atlanta is to find yourself in a kind of Monty Python sketch. "You want the Peachtree Center? Sho', honey. Go down Peachtree Street and make a left into Peachtree Road, then make a right down Peachtree Avenue, cross Peachtree Plaza, and you'll see it between the Peachtree Hilton and the Peachtree Hyatt Regency. You can't miss it, honey. There's a statue of a peach tree outside."
Martin Luther King, who would have been 75 this month, will never be as big a source of pride to Atlanta as the peach tree. Not while there are still so many folk with prarblms. But his memory was celebrated in fine style that winter's day, 18 years ago, with marching bands, majorettes, and a procession of dignitaries waving from the backs of huge convertibles, among them an old black lady who looked decidedly embarrassed by all the fuss.
She was Rosa Parks, the former seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, who on 1 December 1955, had refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Her subsequent arrest, for violating the city's Jim Crow statutes, provoked a black boycott of the buses and a campaign of non-violent protest led by Dr King which eventually led to desegregation of public transport. The old lady deserved her seat in the back of that convertible, just as Dr King deserved to join Christopher Columbus and others who played pivotal roles in US history, by having his own day in the calendar.
All of which brings me to the conviction that Britain should borrow the idea, and give great achievers their own days. Our much-criticised honours system could then be phased out, to be replaced by a far more democratic arrangement.
There would be no more knights of the realm, but a Michael Caine Day and a Clive Woodward Day. There would be no more MBEs, either handed-out or handed-back, but a Benjamin Zephaniah Day and a Yasmin Alibhai-Brown Day. Only a handful, such as Winston Churchill Day and William Shakespeare Day and Isaac Newton Day, would be public holidays, and some would not be instituted nationally at all, but regionally or locally. Some would be one-offs, others annual fixtures. This would offer all the flexibility that an honours system needs.
I was in Los Angeles once when Mayor Tom Bradley declared a Tina Turner Day. All it meant was that local radio stations played more of her records than usual, but she was greatly moved and her admirers overjoyed. Thus Cardiff could have a Shirley Bassey Day, or Liverpool an Alan Bleasdale Day, or even Budleigh Salterton a Doris Blenkinsop Day after a much-loved local postmistress, all to be conferred by committees of the great and the good but also the ordinary, so that the recipients of these honours would never think them tainted by a government or a monarchy of which they disapproved.
It would be less archaic and more fun than giving someone the freedom of a borough. Regrettably, it would also do away with the right to drive cattle through the town centre at midnight, a privilege obviously well worth preserving.
I don't envy all American methods of honouring individuals. Some can be the kiss of death. I've lost count of how many stories I've read about girls voted "Most Likely To Succeed" by their high school classmates only to become heroin addicts, embezzlers or girlfriends of Hugh Hefner. But getting a day of your own, that makes great sense, the more so if, unlike Martin Luther King, you're still around to enjoy it.Reuse content