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Civil rights leaders cite lack of King observance
While post offices, many schools and the New York Stock Exchange will close for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday, it will be business as usual for most companies.
Just a quarter of workplaces offer a paid holiday on Monday, according to a survey of 448 employers by the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., a Washington-based publishing company that researches business trends.
Civil rights leaders say they're disappointed the holiday has not been more widely adopted by companies.
"The numbers are still embarrassing and disappointing, primarily because the Martin Luther King holiday came after so much struggle," said Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "It's disappointing that people do not realize it's a chance to sit down and reflect and think about social justice issues."
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Kweisi Mfume recalls the 15-year battle to persuade lawmakers to recognize King's birthday as a federal holiday.
Beginning in the 1970s, he joined hundreds, and then thousands of others, including Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, shivering through an annual protest march that ended at the steps of the nation's Capitol each Jan. 15 -- King's actual birthday in 1929.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a law making King's birthday a national holiday. It was first celebrated nationwide in January 1986.
In the next two decades, states slowly -- and in some cases reluctantly -- followed. All 50 states now observe the King holiday, said Robert Vickers, a spokesman for The King Center in Atlanta, Ga.
On Monday, 83 percent of government organizations and 76 percent of schools will grant a paid holiday for King's birthday, according to the survey. But only about 10 percent of manufacturers, stores, hospitals and communications companies scheduled a paid holiday, the survey found.
The survey's findings are based on public and private employers' responses to a mailed questionnaire.
"There's a tremendous doublespeak from some in the corporate community," Mfume said. "The juxtaposition is to say, 'We support diversity,' and then at the same time say, 'But by the way, we are not going to celebrate Dr. King's birthday."'
Many companies may not observe the holiday for financial reasons, or because King was a controversial figure, businesses and King scholars say.
"Because King toward the end of his life was talking a lot about the injustice he thought was built into the American capitalist system, he was not a poster boy for American business," said Vincent G. Harding, author of "Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero."
At Hawthorn Physician Services in St. Louis, Mo., it would cost $8,000 to give 100 employees the day off, said human resources director Lisa Williams.
The company observes six holidays, and the King holiday is not among them. "It's annoying because my kids have it off for school," Williams said. "If we had more benefits, that would probably be one of the many I'd like to add."
Watkins Motor Lines, a Florida-based company with about 10,000 employees, also doesn't observe the holiday. "We're a conservative company, and so we probably have more of a comfort level in just sticking to the traditional days," said Billie Sue Toepfer, a personnel supervisor in Cincinnati, Ohio.
There are exceptions, mostly at banks and large companies. Anheuser-Busch, for example, has been granting employees a paid day off on the King holiday for 16 years. MetLife started giving its 39,000 U.S. workers a paid holiday two years ago.
Clayborne Carson, a history professor and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, believes a day off is not the most important issue.
"With any holiday, if you get a three-day ski weekend, why does that have significance with respect to honoring Martin Luther King?" Carson said. "I'm hoping that we can find ways of celebrating the holiday that have meaning."
On the Net:
Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.: http://www.bna.com/
King Papers Project: http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/
The King Center: http://www.thekingcenter.org/