How Martin Luther King Jr. Day Keeps Its Faith

There's no mail, and no school. If it's a national holiday, why is your TV so quiet?

Marketing experts say there are plenty of reasons that Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which has been a federal holiday for more than two decades, remains relatively untouched by the frantic white sales or auto sell-a-thons that accompany most other holidays.

Even though it's been nearly 40 years since the slaying of the civil rights leader, and almost a year since the death of his wife, Coretta Scott King, stores are loath to appear disrespectful or insensitive about the only holiday commemorating an African-American, and one with such a solemn legacy.

"Part of the reason retailers are shy about this is the way King died," said George Whalin, a retail consultant based in San Marcos, Calif. "And part of it is timing. After the rush of the holidays, for retailers, January is a breather month, holiday or not."

Besides, the day has long been surrounded by controversy.

While legislation for a national holiday commemorating King was first introduced just four days after his death in April, 1968, it wasn't until 1983 that the federal holiday was approved, and it took three more years for it to be enacted in 1986. Even then, the bill only passed after a compromise shifted the holiday from Jan. 15, King's birthday, to the third Monday in January, to move it further away from Christmas.



While there's no evidence that Lincoln, Washington or even Chris Columbus would disapprove of spending their birthday at the mall, King's day is clearly different. Civil rights advocates have always positioned it as "a day on, not off." In many communities, the day is filled with memorial services, rallies, and musical performances.

Of course, where some marketers see a refreshingly respectful lull, others see an opportunity.

"Nobody really does any events on Martin Luther King Day, and we feel like they should," said Tracy Ulrich, marketing director of both Signature Harley-Davidson/Buell of Perrysburg, and Toledo Harley-Davidson/Buell, Ohio. The dealer held its first-ever Martin Luther King Jr. sale, donating 5% of the proceeds to the Northwestern Ohio Sickle Cell Foundation, a local charity, asking shoppers to "break the sickle cycle."

"We recently sponsored a ride with them, and it went really well," Ulrich said. "And we're trying to reach out to women and minorities more. We want everyone to experience what we experience."

Bookstores are plugging books about King and the civil rights movement., for example, plans to feature the just-released paperback of At Canaan's Edge, the conclusion of Taylor Branch's acclaimed trilogy about the King era, on its home page.

But don't expect to see thousands of mattress sales anytime soon. "Thirty years from now," said Whalin, "it might be different."

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