Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Though many assume that the day our nation remembers him falls on his birthday, that isn’t the case. He was born on January 15th. Which doesn’t fall on a Monday every year, if you were wondering.
We celebrate a world-altering figure by making a Monday near his birthday into a national holiday, which seems to imply that his legacy is not as important as our three day weekend. It’s arguable that my conclusion is a jaded one. Perhaps the government believes that a day off will enable us to appreciate the impact of his contribution. But is that true?
I’d venture the answer is no. A child may ask what the name on the calendar means. Maybe a few will look him up on Wikipedia. Checks will be harder to cash. And thousands that already spend their time volunteering will take the opportunity to do so today as well. But does a commemorative holiday honor history or belittle it?
Veterans Day and Memorial Day, meant to commemorate combat and sacrifice, are both celebrated by barbecuing animal flesh and shooting off pyrotechnics that sound like gun fire and bombs. Is that really the best way to appreciate the reality of war and the soldiers who lost their lives fighting?
You may see a parade on Labor Day, but only about 12% of Americans belong to unions and corporations are being given human rights. We celebrate Columbus Day, but how many students know him as the greedy, misguided father of transatlantic slave trade that he was?
History must be remembered, especially those individuals that changed its course. However, commemorative holidays do a disservice to the events and lives they attempt to recognize. They trivialize and whitewash the struggles, flaws, and realities not only of those they observe, but of the problems they worked to solve.
MLK Jr. used his words and actions to tear down boundaries built by inequality. Yet nearly 50 years after his assassination, many claim that the dream he spoke of no longer needs advocates. Can we blame them for blinding themselves to continued racial prejudices when our nation treats King’s birthday so caviliarly?
It’s said that our memories define us. We save our experiences through photos, scrapbooks, journals, and Facebook walls. Those methods work well for an individual or group, but not an entire nation. Naming streets or even days after a person or event does not imbue us with understanding. The more years that pass, the further removed we become. Pseudo birthdays hold no meaning for us.
History repeats itself because we do not remember it authentically. A lone day off does not help us appreciate our past nor does it aid us in seeing how it influences our present. Our future brightens by centimeters, a generation at a time. How quickly the light could travel if only we committed ourselves to teaching the whole truth.
Our memories and history books are flawed. Yet the fact that we can do better is plain. Nothing can change until we face ourselves. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired others to take action. Knowing how to move forward comes from seeing where we’ve been and recognizing where we are now.
Do what others will not. Reflect, analyze, and act upon your dream. As King realized, you “can do small things in a great way”.