Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities? It’s a day granted by the U.S. government to enshrine the legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while acting as the only call to action most of us will ever receive (aside from paying taxes and participating in the census, of course.) And while many of us are generally familiar with Dr. King’s legacy and his importance in the racial justice and civil rights movements, far fewer of us know how to actually celebrate each January or the saga behind the day. Often times our history books paint a far rosier, and obviously less detailed, version of events. At a time in history where American communities were reeling from the desegregation of schools, on-going violence, and ever-changing legislation, Dr. King in many ways served as the face of this change. And this, in and of itself, made him controversial.
Even the origins of MLK Day are quite controversial. Soon after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, there were immediate calls and campaigns to commemorate King’s honor with federal recognition, largely due to grassroot organization from labor unions. After King’s death, U.S. Rep. Conyers (D-Michigan) and U.S. Sen. Brooke (R -Massachusetts) introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday. The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979, but fell five votes short of passing. The controversy over the bill eventually spilled into the American public. Stevie Wonder released a song in support of the campaign for federal recognition, and over six million petition signatures were collected in the early 80’s (the largest in U.S. history at the time). Republican Senators Helms and Porter East of North Carolina led the opposition campaign and questioned whether King was important enough to receive such an honor, alleging that King had associations with communists and criticizing King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Proposed again in 1983 by Rep. Katie Hall (D-Indiana), the bill passed the Senate by a count of 78 to 22 and the House of Representatives by 338 to 90.
President Reagan eventually signed the holiday into law on November 2, 1983, though he was initially opposed citing cost concerns, and it was first observed three years later (January 20, 1986.) Initially, some states actively resisted observing the holiday, giving it alternative names (like Robert E. Lee Day in Alabama) or combining it with other holidays (Idaho Human Rights Day.) It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.
The history of this rather new and vague holiday is just the tip of the iceberg for rich conversations and ideas one could have regarding both that point in American history as well as race relations and the intersectionality with all facets of life. It took 18 years to finally federally recognize Dr. King’s legacy, which given his sacrifice, is reason enough to celebrate.
However you choose to honor King’s legacy, I challenge you to do something intentional and purposeful on Monday, January 20, 2020. As King famously said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
MLK Day is an excellent opportunity to honor the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and put his values into action by planning projects focused on social and economic justice.
- The Corporation for National and Community Service (known for its network of national service programs, like AmeriCorps) maintains a comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities specifically for MLK Day. Find opportunities here.
Support a Black owned business.
- Much of the inequity Dr. King spoke of is a direct result of generational poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage. You can’t have equality without equity, and Black business owners often face additional barriers to their success because of their race. For a day that is about giving back, you can also empower individuals by supporting Black businesses in your community or online.
Work on your allyship.
- First and foremost, allyship is a journey, not a destination. Allyship is defined as a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people. Dr. King worked to foster a legacy of utilizing his platform to advocate for those without a voice. In his memory, each of us, particularly those of us in positions of privilege, can lift others up, share growth opportunities, recognize systematic inequalities and implicit biases, and believe the experiences of underrepresented people. MLK Day is the perfect opportunity to listen, support, self-reflect, and change.
Donate to organizations working for racial justice.
- The NAACP and Common Ground Foundation are just the beginning of entities that exist to equitably empower the lives of Americans of color. Click here to see a list of organizations you can invest in.
Go deeper into MLK’s speeches.
- Most of us can recite a verse or two from his most famous speech: “I have a dream.” But the content and character of his other works are really something to marvel. Here’s one of my personal favorites: The Three Evils of Society. You can access an archive of his speeches here.
Bring your kids along to a local MLK Day parade or service.
- Local churches and community centers hold services and events to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday. Consider attending an event as a family. It’s a great way to start conversations with you children about racial inequality and the role we must play.
Read some of his books or the works that inspired him.
- Henry Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience”, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the life and oeuvre of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, who King met in India in 1959, all had a hand in shaping his world view and advocacy. Head to the library or fire up your tablet – today is a great today to read the writings of the thinkers who got MLK going.
Attend a racial equity or racial justice training.
- Each of us carry biases that guide how we interact with the greater world. A group dialogue is a great way to begin such transformations by bringing together people from varied backgrounds in a formal setting to talk about their experiences with privilege, bias, and intolerance.
Learn about the Poor People’s campaign.
- In 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led this movement centered on a “revolution of values” in America. Uniting the poor, they sought to build a broad movement to bring awareness to and change the plight of those living in poverty across America. Click here to learn more about the movement here..
Recognize and appreciate the strides King made, while also recognizing the change still needed.
- MLK Day is often seen as a time to reflect on the history of racial injustice in America. Seeing the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and the end of lawful racial segregation as the end of racism in the United States is a disservice to the black community in today’s age. Discrimination, bias and disadvantage still exist daily for people of color, which needs to be recognized before it can be challenged. Recognizing racism today is foundational to expanding upon the movements of the past, creating the understanding needed to notice injustice more critically and comprehensively.
For Alumnae Chapters
What better way to model and live Ritual than by finding meaningful ways to celebrate together? The challenge is simple. Get out. Do something. Together. Intentionally. Make it a day on, not a day off.
Leah Horton is an alumna of Tau Gamma (Eastern Washington U) and a member of the Education Committee.