The uncertain path to a holiday: reflections on MLK Day 2022.
Celebrate, but don’t be fooled. The Jubilee is still to come.
Holidays are reflections of society’s history. We memorialize heroes and historic moments on our calendars because of the ways they changed us. These heroes often emerge throughout our history at crisis points so rare and catastrophic that they create a crucible for transformation.
We may be at such a point now. Two years into a global pandemic, more than 800,000 people have died in the US and over five million globally. While the world’s poorest countries wait for vaccine doses, the US and other rich countries cannot convince half their people to vax and mask up. The cruel inequities of our systems persist, exemplified by years and multitudes of unseen Black and Brown bodies killed by police without consequence, culminating in the murder of George Floyd in front of us all, and followed by rebellion, reckoning, and racist resistance.
King’s story offers a path forward.
Today when most North Americans hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr. they picture him in front of a throng of admirers at the Lincoln Memorial delivering his “I have a dream” speech. But before, during, and after that event, many in this country viewed King as a threat. At a press conference in November 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered King one of the most dangerous men in the US, and called him, “The most notorious liar in the country.” King lived under constant surveillance and attack. His phone was often tapped to gather evidence that might discredit him. His home was bombed in 1956, a year after he received his doctorate in Theology from Boston University.
In 1958, a woman stabbed him with a letter opener at a book signing. He was arrested and served time repeatedly on trumped-up charges, in 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1963–the same year he gave his “I have a dream” speech. He was arrested again in 1964 for demanding service at a white-only restaurant in Florida, the same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize and Time Magazine named him “Man of the Year.”
Still, King remained steadfast in his faith, anchored to a clear understanding of history and of power’s unrelenting resistance to change. He understood protests would spark a violent reaction. He expected it and planned for it. He and other activists learned how to ignore the ugly rancor and hatred to stay focused on their freedom goals.
The uncertain path to a holiday.
Four days after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) asked Congress to establish a federal holiday in his honor. Despite petitions with three million signatures supporting the bill, it went nowhere for several years.
Local celebrations neither needed nor waited for Congressional approval. Coretta Scott King sponsored the first Martin Luther King Day observance in Atlanta in 1969. Individual cities and states followed in the 1970s with official holidays. The release of Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday,” dedicated to King, sparked a spike in public support for the holiday. Coretta Scott King and Wonder delivered six million signatures in support of the holiday to the Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1982. In 1983, after activists once again flocked to D.C. to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the March on Washington and the 15th anniversary of King’s assassination, Congress finally passed the legislation and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law.
Nonetheless, division over King’s legacy and celebration persisted. Southern states – including Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia – combined it with holidays honoring Confederate heroes such as Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, aiming to demean and diminish King’s legacy. Idaho finally acknowledged the holiday in 1990, in an apparent attempt to deflect condemnation for harboring multiple white supremacist organizations. Other states, including Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire, and Utah, simply refused to observe it, delaying full recognition as late as 2000.
Where we stand.
Nearly 30 years after President Reagan reluctantly signed legislation to make the third Monday in January Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, where do we stand in overcoming our divisions and realizing his vision? We have taken steps toward a more just community. Structural racism and white supremacy are openly named and examined.
But we have side-stepped vestiges of our caste system that deny so many their basic rights and freedoms. There are nearly as many African Americans under criminal supervision as there were enslaved people in the 1850s. Black and brown bodies, as well as the bodies of indigenous and immigrant peoples, otherwise able, queer, and poor people, continue to be monetized, marginalized, and erased, their struggles barely recognized in the #MeToo movement, their rights denied to maintain traditional power structures. As the pandemic rages on, our most marginalized communities remain left behind – punished simply for who they are.
Like Dr. King, in the midst of such challenge we can and must remain steadfast, anchored to a clear-eyed hope for the resilience of our humanity and faith in each other. In his words, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
So, as we embrace Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2022, let us pause and reflect on who we as a people have been and who we want to be moving forward. Let us deeply examine the mistakes we have made, the harm we have caused, the lessons we have learned, the victories we have won, and the mountains we still must climb. Let us celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy, while honoring all who marched with him and the many shoulders, he, they, and we stand on.
And after the celebration, let there be no holiday for advocacy and activism. There can be no vacation from the work of transformation. It is time for The Jubilee of Disruption, The Jubilee of Revelation, and The Jubilee of Revolution.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! I wish Good Trouble to you all.
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