Recognizing MLK Day
By: Tammy Francois, Lake County News Chronicle
It has been nearly three decades since President Reagan signed into law the King Holiday Bill after a protracted, often bitter battle that started in 1968, just days after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
The legislation introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., was to many a fitting tribute to a man who had devoted, and lost, his life in the pursuit of equity, justice and peace.
He led a nation — even embracing those who opposed him, fought him, sought to harm him — and did so by proving that power lies in the ability to inspire, encourage, envision and act peacefully, but determinedly.
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable,” King said in a 1961 speech at New York University. “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
He knew what lay ahead, yet he continued to walk toward the impending storm, as he did in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, his Birmingham jail cell, and the bombing of his home and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1963 and the Nobel Peace Prize winner the next year, he was the voice and the face of a movement and a revolution, a lightning rod and a beacon of hope, and he did it all without raising a hand or weapon against another human being.
All this before his 40th birthday. The rest of us would be lucky to do half as much by 80.
This brief and incomplete overview of the life of Dr. King does little to describe the era in which he lived and worked, the struggles and anguish or the threat that surrounded him day to day. It is clear, however, that he accomplished what seemed impossible — securing the civil rights of people whose voices were not heard and who lived in the depths of oppression, and in the process, freeing us all.
So the question now is how, not why, should honor him?
After his death, when legislation was first introduced, and up until the year 2000, when the last state officially acknowledged the Martin Luther King holiday, the debate over setting the day aside was vitriolic. Some of us remember the efforts of Jesse Helms and others who fought vehemently to prevent the Senate from passing the bill. But it came to pass and that debate now seems petty and ridiculous.
But it isn’t universally observed. While federal and state offices, public libraries, post offices and some businesses lock their doors for a day of remembrance, many schools will remain open — including our own in the Lake Superior School District.
Throughout the week, I spoke to School Board officials and a local principal and asked why. Of course, there was nothing in the conversations to suggest that there was any disrespect intended on the part of the district. It was really more of a decision having been made on the board level that has gone unquestioned and unchallenged. No one I spoke to had any recollection of when the decision was made, by whom or when it had last been revisited. I was told that it had not been brought forth as an agenda item at least since 2006.
I was also told that many believe King would be better honored and his legacy better taught if students were to remain in school and attend assemblies about him. And there is the argument that school districts — ours already at four days a week — can’t afford willy-nilly to add extra holidays.
That was the case for Duluth public schools too, until 2007, when the district reshuffled its calendar to shorten its winter holiday and dedicate a King Holiday.
Duluth certainly shouldn’t be considered a model for everything Lake County should or shouldn’t do, but its calendar readjustment does provide a simple solution to what had been a seemingly intractable administrative issue.
The comments of the people I talked to were not of those who didn’t care about King or of teaching students the lessons of his world-changing life. As stated, there are many ways to do so.
But to do nothing is not one of them.