Early on the crisp, clear morning of January 15, 1981, I boarded a bus in Princeton, New Jersey bound for a demonstration in Washington, DC to make the birthdate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a national holiday. Via the Associated Press, the New York Times reported the next day that about 15,000 of us "walked along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol the Washington Monument, carrying signs that read, 'Let's make this day a day of celebration - Happy Birthday to Martin Luther King' and 'I Have a Dream - for Peace.'"
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. via Wikimedia Commons
I am now at an age where I realize that there might be some value in recording what moved tens of thousands of Americans to march, sign petitions, lobby, testify in Congress.
I remember arriving in DC in the gathering light and walking with my friends toward the gathering crowd. Streets were blocked off for the demonstration. I recall a throng of Howard University students marching behind a banner - HU, you know! I remember that the mall was covered in ice for which my boots and socks were no match. No matter. I huddled with my friends in a vain attempt to stay warm, but I was happy to be there. I am sure Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) was there also, since he introduced the bill to create the holiday shortly after Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It languished without a vote for nine years.
Gil Scot-Heron, the protest-poet-troubador was there too, and if memory serves, he talked about Dr. King's international vision, how his concern for human rights abroad matched his zeal for civil rights at home. I don't think he sang his tribute to sharecropper-turned-voting-rights activist and King ally Fannie Lou Hamer, All of the Places We've Been, but I like to think about it now, because it says so much about the real meaning of the King Holiday:
I am sure, though, that we all sang his anti-apartheid anthem, "Johannesburg," with him. Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the movement to get universities and other institutions to divest holdings in companies doing business in South Africa was still struggling to gain momentum:
It was not lost on us that we were living in the dying days of the Jimmy Carter presidency. Carter had supported the establishment of the holiday, and with that encouragement, King's widow, Coretta Scott King had testified before Congress, used the resources of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change to gather 300,000 signatures, and had seen Conyers' bill fall short by five Congressional votes in 1979.
His successor, Ronald Reagan, was not considered a fan of Dr. King or Civil Rights. I recall reports that Reagan credited the nonsensical charges that King was a communist, and that the holiday would cost too much. We could not know then that it would be Pres. Reagan who would ultimately sign the King Holiday bill into law, saying in part,
"Dr. King had awakened something strong and true - a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that and that among white and black Americans, as he put it, 'Their destiny is our destiny; we cannot walk alone.'"
Those of us who marched to create the holiday had more in mind than a day off from work or school. In 1994, then-Sen. Harris Wofford (D-PA) and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), both friends and allies of King's, sponsored legislation declaring the King holiday as a National Day of Service. Recalling that effort, Wofford's former Chief of Staff Todd Bernstein, wrote on the White House blog:
We imagined diverse groups of people throughout the nation celebrating Dr. King’s legacy by serving others. This service would bring together people of all ages and backgrounds to identify pressing community challenges, turn concerns into citizen action, and build partnerships that would act as a springboard to sustainable civic engagement.
That sentiment echoes an admonition from one of Dr. King's sermons that "Everybody can be great - because everbody can serve." That quotation opens the video marking the 2012 federal observance of Martin Luther King Day.
in a January 2011 interview and article, Earl Ofari Hutchinson lamented that, "the King holiday is still not the universally observed federal holiday that it could or should be." The national observance has been slow in taking hold, with South Carolina only adopting it as a paid holiday in 2000. There, and to this day in Virginia, the commemoration of Dr. King's birthday was, for some years, held alongside the celebration of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
In January, 1981, I was on the threshhold of adulthood, having come of age with the understanding that I was part of the living legacy of the Civil Rights generation. In large measure, my writing and my work in education over the last 31 years has been an attempt to live up to that legacy in some small measure. Despite all of the places I've been, I remain convicted by the great questions with which Dr. King grappled - of how we create a true "beloved community" - devoted to the eradication of poverty and injustice and committed to peace:
For all of these reasons, singing this song along with Stevie Wonder that day moved me to tears. It still does. Happy birthday, Dr. King.
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