Elmer Smith | At a school named for King, a worthy commemoration

THE SCHOOL THEY named in his honor was abuzz with activity yesterday.

Dr. King would have loved it.

The City Commissioners had set up a sample voting booth, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia was offering free legal advice.

Guides in King-commemoration T-shirts were directing people through Martin Luther King High School's crowded hallways to rooms where Philadelphia Reads was preparing mentors and recording the voices of volunteers as they read books to unseen children.

United Way of Philadelphia's "Project Warm Hearts" was showcasing its weatherization program for senior citizens. In another room of the school on Stenton Avenue at Haines in West Oak Lane, the YouthBuild Charter prepared to distribute free laptop computers.

Across the street from the school's side door, a group of students installed drywall in a house in the 1300 block of Haines Street, a block being renovated one house at a time by the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp.

Hard to imagine a more fitting commemoration for a man who gave his life for his work. He has fared better than American icons like Lincoln and Washington, whose birthdays have been combined in a commemoration that honors neither.

We remember King with a day on, not a day off, because there are no holidays when your work's undone. Besides, if he had lived to work for another year or two, we wouldn't be celebrating King's birthday.

He would have alienated many of the people in that multiracial coalition that marched with him when he was going their way. There was broad agreement that the rabid racism of Jim Crow was a national disgrace.

But with every new issue, he would have taken a stand that would offend some segment of his civil-rights supporters. His principled stance against the war in Vietnam had chipped away some support. He would have had his say on Roe v. Wade, about gay marriage, about our Middle East policy or lack thereof.

By then, his base would have been divided into enemy camps. A holiday that met with massive resistance as it was, would be unthinkable by now.

In the black community, he would have angered a middle class he once described as often "unmoved and untouched by the agonies and struggles of the poor."

He would certainly have railed against the hip-hop anthems that urge black youth to keep it real, as if street life is the only reality they can relate to.

An internal FBI memo in August 1963 described King as "the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation." They don't write that about dreamers.

In what usually serves as the gymnasium at the King School, several hundred luminaries and their guests remembered the dream over a cold lunch.

Luncheon co-chair Pamela Crawley, an executive vice president at Citizens Bank, congratulated the planners and participants for a decision "to skip the convenience of a Center City hotel" and the usual hot meal to come to a place that bore King's name and spirit.

Even in the humble confines of a high-school gym, the event drew the usual impressive array of political aspirants and civic leaders. But this year they were surrounded by students who are just now learning to link their lives with his movement.

"Between the Last Poets and 50 Cent, the movement got lost," a teen sage named Hassan Malik Babb told the gathered dignitaries and his student peers.

In an earlier session, the Institute for Civic Values had packed 200 people into a room to hear the mayor and leaders representing every element of the criminal-justice system lay out elaborate battle plans for the campaign against violence that Dr. King would have been fully immersed in if he had lived.

A few miles away on North Broad Street, civic leaders gathered in a YMCA to trade groceries for guns.

In a town where last year's homicide rate of more than one a day may soon be remembered as the good old days, this would have been no holiday for Dr. King.