Since 1986, the third Monday of January has been reserved to commemorate the birthday, life and legacy of one of the nation’s greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King—a Baptist preacher, scholar, and arguably the greatest leader of the Civil Rights Movement, selflessly fought for the equal rights of not only African Americans, but all people.
In a time when Jim Crow and legal segregation were the law of the land, Dr. King became the face of a movement that sought to dismantle the institution of racial injustice. He advocated for persons in poverty, spoke against the Vietnam war, and worked to ensure that all Americans had equal rights and protections under the law. Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, his legacy lives on.
Although MLK Day is a national holiday, the ways in which people choose to celebrate—or not—are endless. Many schools and organizations across the nation will have the day off and/or host an MLK Day program, while others may participate in a community service project or attend city-wide marches and rallies.
In Chicago, the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago will lead volunteers in organizing food for distribution to the Senior Food and Nutrition Program in partnership with Catholic Charities. In Kansas City, Missouri, Turn the Page KC will host a book give-away at Southeast Community Center. Atlanta, the hometown of Dr. King, will have many volunteer opportunities including the 7th Annual Street Team for Energy Efficiency and Climate Resilience, hosted by the Center for Sustainable Communities.
“I will be giving 15 keynote presentations at MLK events over the next two weeks.” says Erin Jones, a 25-year educator, public speaker, and former State Superintendent candidate of Washington State. “[However,] I would like to think I celebrate his birthday every single day by living my life devoted to equality and opportunity for all, especially those who are most vulnerable in our communities.”
Just Another Day Off?
As our nation continues to fight issues of social injustice and racial tension, many question whether or not the ideals memorialized on MLK Day—a day of peace and tolerance—hold true throughout the year.
“We need to understand as a country that what [Dr. King] fought for still needs to be fought for today,” says Thomas McElroy, long-time musician from Seattle Washington. “The path towards a country united under the principals he laid down for all of us still need to be worked on.”
So, the question becomes, does MLK Day hold any true meaning in present-day society? Or, has it been reduced to a day off from work and school?
According to Erin Jones, “We have turned the day into an opportunity to rehearse the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
“I can honestly say that, personally, I have never celebrated the holiday and have taken it as a vacation day,” says Elisabeth Scott, a recent college graduate of Western Washington University. “It wasn’t until going to my current church, that I participated in an MLK service. Had I not sung [during service], I probably wouldn’t have attended.”
However, Sergeant First Class Derek White, a 16-year member of the armed forces still sees the value in MLK Day, and what it means to the future of our society.
“I think that MLK being observed most definitely holds weight for both older and the younger generations. One way to ensure that our past does not repeat itself is by honoring people like Dr. King and his legacy and what he fought for and stood for.”
The Importance of Generational Knowledge
As an educator, Erin Jones argues that celebrating MLK Day does not have the same significance for young people today.
“Students have no context to understand the gravity of what Dr. King and his peers accomplished,” the educator says. “That being said, I believe it is our responsibility to communicate the value of this holiday, which is why I agreed to speak at so many schools.”
As a professional mentor to students, Jessica Crenshaw believes in giving back to the community, but admits that she does not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day—for much different reasons.
“I do not celebrate MLK day as a holiday because I feel the significance of the day has been diminished,” Jessica says. “I feel it has been cheapened down for a “get-off-of-work-free card”.
For Jessica, authentic celebration of MLK Day should include not only service to the community, rallies, and celebration events, but should serve as a day to reflect and organize for long-term change.
“I feel as if people should really take time to reflect over what Dr. King was trying to accomplish, and actually sit down and have planning meetings to plan out actions to make sure that his dream gets fulfilled,” she says. “Concerts and protests are good, but if you don’t continue to do this work after January 16th then you’re not doing it for a real reason.”