The politics of celebrating the annual Martin Luther King Day in the U.S.A.
There are those who still say the creation of America’s 10 national holiday in 1983—i.e., the kind that means post offices, banks, schools, and libraries close and federal workers get the day off—was a reparations gift of White guilt for the long years of making Black Americans suffer.
No less than former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, during the heat of the nasty Senate fight to help establish the holiday, was even quoted as saying about some vociferous critics, “I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination.”
The King Center in Atlanta, Ga., established by Coretta Scott King, a soldier for peace in her own right, definitively laid out the case for the continual celebration of the MLK Day on the third Monday of every January: “The national holiday honoring Dr. King is an occasion for joy and celebration for his life and his work toward nonviolent social change in America and the world.
Traditionally, we celebrate holidays with parties, family picnics, fireworks, a trip back home or to the seashore. However, we must also be mindful that this is a special holiday—one which symbolizes our nation’s commitment to peace through justice; to universal brother and sisterhood; and to the noblest ideal of all: a democratic society based on the principles of freedom, justice and equality for all people. Whether you celebrate Dr. King’s birthday on Jan. 15th or during Black History Month, the holiday is an occasion for thanksgiving, unselfishness, and rededicating ourselves to the causes for which he stood and for which he died.”
Through a third eye, the National King Holiday and Service Act, a significant piece of legislation authored by Congressman John Lewis and former Senator Harris Wofford, and in 1994 signed by then-President Bill Clinton, said the MLK holiday was a day of service; a time period for renewed citizen activism and volunteerism for peace, mediation and engagement. Several cities, counties and metropolitan areas have since then sponsored public projects and calls to action on the King holiday weekend.
Some even say the day is just another great opportunity to play Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday to Ya!” homage to Dr. King, and a time to reflect on the continuing struggles of Black Americans to find their economic and cultural balance in a still-hostile environment.
Added to these is the historical significance of MLK Day. Besides Dr. King, only two other national holidays are dedicated to individuals: the above mentioned Columbus Day for Christopher Columbus, and Washington Day for first president George Washington. Out of only 10 national holidays, that’s pretty tall cotton. There is no national Lincoln Day, no John Kennedy Day, no FDR Day, no Ike Day. There’s not even a Ronald Reagan Day . . . yet.
The MLK Day is the only one dedicated to a modern or old-school Black American hero.
While we can say that Labor Day celebrates the best of America’s working, class roots that built this country into a manufacturing and export powerhouse, and Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day provide us ample opportunities to honor this nation’s soldiers and fighting personnel.
Thanksgiving is for gratitude and family re-engagement, Christmas is supposed to be about the Christ-child’s birth and Santa Claus’ chimney-hopping (are they part of the same family?).
Independence Day is self-defined, and New Year’s Day celebrates another survival and another chance to get it right. MLK Day is the only one that so far has not been swallowed up in endless shopping, barbecues, partying, frivolity, football, and other dimensions of mass consumerism.
MLK Day remains the distinctive American holiday that represents the triumph of the human spirit.
As the newly unveiled 30-foot statue of Dr. King looks out across the Washington Mall with a serious, analytical gaze, this second international memorial (the Atlanta King Center still claims the primacy) reminds us for 365-plus days a year that Dr. King, his life and his legacy, all encapsulated in the MLK National Holiday, stand for relentless, forever forward moving hope for the best of humankind to finally shine through. The MLK Day should always be celebrated to remind us of the best that we actually can become—it is the holiday of hope carefully nurtured and steadfastly pursued.
Happy King Day to Ya!
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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