What does Martin Luther King day mean to you? Do you have practices or habits for how you recognize the day or any of the 11 federally sanctioned U.S. holidays? I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t regularly recognize any of the holidays for the events or people each holiday honored until I became a parent. Before then, my recognition was purely self-serving – days off of work to go play or just sleep in.
MLK Day became a holiday in 1986, though it had been signed into law three years earlier by President Reagan, even though he had opposed the holiday claiming budgetary concerns and calling Dr. King a communist. All of the states eventually signed on for the Holiday in 2000, and now it has also evolved into a day to encourage citizen service and action for our communities. This seems fitting to me, as Dr. King believed that fighting for equality and human rights for African-Americans, the economically disadvantaged, and all victims of systemic injustice through peaceful protest was not only our fundamental right, but also our responsibility.
Dedicated after MLK Day, our newest federal holiday is Juneteenth on June 19th (enacted by President Biden in 2021). Both of these holidays are connected to our nation’s struggle for civil rights and ending systemic oppression. Juneteenth specifically commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans on the anniversary of the 1865 date when emancipation was announced.
It says something that the U.S. has two holidays connected to the aspiration of being a society based on equality, equity, and the value of each human life regardless of difference. I choose to believe it’s because we are on the cusp of learning to truly love one another even when we don’t understand each other and that our nation is working to evolve into a truly just society.
Dr. King artfully but directly challenges my kind of optimism: “If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.”
My optimism aside, Dr. King gave us an instruction manual on how we can achieve that aspiration.
He encouraged us to not judge one another on our appearance but on our actions as people and the content of our character.*
By telling us he had a dream, he invited us to dream as well, and to never give up on our aspirations even when we are afraid, particularly when those aspirations are about making a better world for our children.
He believed that we are all linked together, and the ripples of fate that harm some of us eventually expand out and impact all of us. “All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
His life (and multiple arrests and beatings) modeled courage and the risk associated with speaking the truth. He believed that speaking the truth was worth it, even when it costs us and that, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
He defined “faith” in a way that even skeptics like me can sign-up for. To him, “faith” is taking action when our hearts know what is needed, even if we don’t know what the outcome of taking action will be. “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Dr. King urged us to non-violently resist tyranny and hate using civil protest and thoughtful dialogue as a means to call attention to injustice. He also wasn’t afraid to be critical of our government, not in opposition to our democracy, but in support of it. “This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of its colored citizens.”
Now I recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Day and the National Day of Service not just because it’s the right thing to do for African-Americans, the economically disadvantaged or victims of injustice. I believe that I and we are all part of the “inescapable network of mutuality” Dr. King referred to. We are all connected, and what happens to some of us actually does impact all of us, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not. We can become more aware of this by opening our minds and hearts to others’ experience (learn), and in so doing we can feel and respond to (act) with more power, empathy, and precision.
The best of what Dr. King had to say in terms of his sermons and writing is frequently overlooked. Check out this piece by our colleague and collaborator Rann Miller.
So, on this day, I am going to reflect on how Dr. King’s message applies to me, that peace and equality begin with me, and that I am obligated and capable of having compassion and care for all people, even if I disagree with or don’t understand them.
What’s in it for you to celebrate Martin Luther King day? Let us know by commenting on this post or sending us a message.
*As awesome as this quote is, it is noteworthy that many, including President Reagan, used the “content of their character” quote to promote the idea of “colorblindness” which was as best as we can tell NOT Dr. King’s intent.