This year Martin Luther King Jr. Day falls on his actual birthday. Let's honor his legacy through service, community conversations, and civic engagement.
We’re back in school, making sense of 2018’s arrival. And here comes a long weekend, perhaps feeling mistimed, or at least too early as routines resume. But could there ever be a better year to remember the origin story for Martin Luther King Jr. Day or to learn it for the first time? Consider:
That this year the holiday honoring King’s legacy falls precisely on his birthday, Jan.15, in Atlanta 89 years ago. His assassination at the Lorraine Motel, now Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis will have been exactly a half-century ago this spring on April 4, four years into our own school’s efforts to desegregate and a year after Cassandra Teague became our first African-American graduate in 1967. The students who walked these halls as seniors back then will return this April for the 50th reunion of the Class of ’68.
For 15 years after King’s tragic loss, members of Congress sought a commemorative day on our national calendar, undeterred by resistance and inertia, helped in 1979 by Stevie Wonder releasing “Happy Birthday” as a musical salute. What followed was a national petition drawing millions of signatures. By 1983, large majorities formed in both chambers, with the bill passing 338-90 that July in the House and 78-22 that October in the Senate, despite a brief filibuster by North Carolina’s Sen. Strom Thurmond. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law Nov. 2, 1983, albeit with that veto-proof support evident.
As an aside, and as an indication of the power of incumbency, 26 members of that Congress are still serving today. And six of them voted against the bill, including Sen. John McCain, who cites that opposition as one of his greatest mistakes in office.
States’ responses varied, with most adopting the third Monday in January as a formal observance and a handful of conspicuous exceptions. It was not until 1991 that all 50 finally agreed, with New Hampshire establishing a Civil Rights Day as a sort of compromise. Not until 2000 did South Carolina grant state employees a paid holiday, the last state to do so. Up to that time, those workers could choose between MLK Day or, alternatively, a Confederate holiday, of which there were several.
Maybe most remarkable in this storyline, at least to me, is the fact that Alabama and Mississippi continue to celebrate King’s birthday combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Only last year did Arkansas separate those two legacies, in favor MLK Day claiming primacy. I can’t recall ever reading that headline, though it seems wrong not to know.
Back in the ’80s, schools like ours made very intentional efforts to teach civil rights history on MLK Day. Many chose to stay in classes and devote classroom time to documentaries like “Eyes on the Prize” and speakers who shared their stories from the movement.
That pattern became familiar, then it gave way to more direct participation in community projects, to civic engagement away from campus. And with that shift our connection to the holiday as a “day on” became more tenuous, our urgency less obvious. And here we are, over three decades after MLK Day became a national holiday in 1986, with an established but easily taken for granted Monday off.
Let’s resolve, in this year of Charlottesville, Va. and monument protests, to get up and get out on MLK Day. Take a look at the Metro Human Relations Commission’s resource site
—it’s packed with opportunity, starting Saturday, Jan. 13. Think about the commemorative march from Jefferson Street to the Gentry Center at Tennessee State University. Or look at Hands on Nashville’s events
for what is now a National Day of Service.
Wednesday, Jan. 17 at Langford Auditorium, our Vanderbilt neighbors host Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker
to discuss racial protest with the chancellor, as the culmination of the university’s Commemorative Series
. Make time for observations great and modest, for actions dedicated the “Beloved Community,” understanding that there are a place and a responsibility for all of us.
Thanks for bearing with the overview—there’s something powerful in this moment,