King’s holiday will be celebrated in America next Monday. It is an opportunity for everyone to remember the revered civil rights crusader’s contribution not just to the liberation of African Americans but all oppressed black people in the world
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was martyred on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee when a gunman killed him at the Lorraine Motel. The motel today has become an important civil rights museum as well as a depository for some of the civil rights movement’s historical artifacts. Many events, activities and memorials have been erected to honour the memory of Dr King, but the most enduring one is declaring a United States federal holiday in his honour. The day, the third Monday in January, marks his birthday and it is observed with pomp and circumstance. It is one of only ten such mandated holidays in the history of the United States alongside America’s Independence Day as well as Presidents’ Day. All of these holidays, honouring the memories of great American citizens, and seen as ‘floating holidays’, have been promulgated under the American Holiday Act
HISTORY OF THE MARTIN LUTHER KING HOLIDAY
In his own right, Martin Luther King, with his high-level of education, was the point- man as well as the leading spokesperson for the non-violent activism of the second phase of America’s civil rights movement that started in Montgomery, Alabama. The second phase ignited when in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus (after working all day in her sewing business). The confrontation led to a successful protest against racial discrimination resulting in a change to federal and state laws. Dr King’s leadership of the civil rights movement made him so popular internationally that, in 1964, he became a recipient of the Nobel peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. After his sudden assassination in 1968, a campaign for a federal holiday in King's honour was mounted. It was Republican President Ronald Reagan who signed the holiday bill into law in 1983 and it was enacted by the US Congress. However, the first observance of the holiday did not take place until January 20, 1986 and not in every state of the United States as some did not initially agree to observe it. However, it was in 2000 that the holiday, honouring the civil rights leader, was observed in all of the fifty (50) American states for the first time.
It is a historical fact that the very idea of such a King Day being observed as a public holiday was actively promoted by American labour organisations. However, in the United States Congress, it was a black Republican Massachusetts senator by the name of Edward Brooke and Michigan congressional representative John Conyers, who introduced congressional bills to make Dr. King's January 21 birthday a national holiday. When the bill was first voted on in 1979 in the United States’ House of Representatives, it fell short of five votes. This was because critics complained that the holiday was too expensive due to the fact that it required a paid holiday for American federal employees. It was also argued that such a holiday to honour a private citizen would be contrary to long-standing tradition. After all, the opponents cited the fact that Dr King never held public office, unlike the two other persons to have had similar national holidays named in their honour, George Washington the father of the nation, being one of them, Meanwhile, subsequent years have seen the holiday taking place on different days. For example, in 2013, King’s Day is to take place on Monday, January 21, which is the third Monday of the month. It is expected on that day that Americans from all walks of life will join with the international community to honour his life and legacy.. There will be the usual thematic banner acknowledging the observance of the Dr King’s legacy , but in addition, the holiday would be “a day on, not a day off.”
Most certainly, Dr King’s holiday, , has a momentum of its own beyond its promulgation by Ronald Reagan. The other side of the historical coin was that in January 1979, then Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (later elected as American president) made mention of the holiday idea or possibility when he spoke at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Dr King’s 50th birthday. Then Governor Carter made the initial public call for a national holiday to honour Dr King’s birthday, long before Republican President Reagan, in November 1983, signed a legislative instrument to make the birthday America’s 10th national holiday in honour of Dr King. Interestingly, Mr. Reagan, among other laudable details in a speech, underscored in the White House Rose Garden : that there were still traces of bigotry that mar America, but that “each year on Marin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr King but rededicate ourselves to the commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart and thou neighbor as thyself.”
NEW ECONOMIC FOCUS OF KING’S MOVEMENT
Meanwhile, within the obvious context of the late civil rights leader’s beloved notion of community, he is often appropriately remembered for his leadership role in the second phase of the civil rights movement of America. In the years before his death, he was described as a drum major for peace in a world that has often been embroiled in all sorts of catastrophes as well as all forms of violence, including racial hatred. What is therefore often forgotten about Dr King in the process, is that his civil rights interests had been focused, from the beginning, on issues of racial justice. For example, after the famous 1963 March on Washington and also shortly before his assassination, his new focus had moved towards a struggle for economic justice. In the world of equity and inclusion, even at the time, the statistics for black versus white job opportunities versus payroll for the groups, did underscore an unfortunate disparity.
According to observers, Dr. King, , went into a panic mode when he realised that there was still much work to be done to break down the walls of racial segregation and bigotry referred to by Reagan., Ironically there was some resonance with Reagan’s clarion call on Russian President Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall during his presidency, an action that eventually brought about German unification.
Between 1967 and 1968, Dr King and his supporters had a limited time to spearhead an economic revolution. Indeed, it was felt thtat there was much “wasting” of time on the political, and integration battlefields. That was why, in April 16, 1967 in a speech to his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), he questioned whether America would move from economic stagnation to economic prosperity for all and sundry. It is poignant that no matter how forceful he was with the new quest for economic freedom, Dr King did not live to see the results of his inspired leadership.
Between 1968 and 2013, there is a lapse of 45 years.America is this year celebrating Dr. King’s 84th birthday on January 21st. . It is being celebrated under the quivers of the new “Occupy Movement” ( or the “99% Movement”), which is utilising some of Dr. King’s Gandhian non-violent protest philosophy; their actions are nationwide but particularly so on Wall Street, where it has sought to frighten big business in what its leaders see as “fat cats” draining the middle class of its resources. In varied ways, this nascent movement is similar to Dr King’s own movement. Seen as being multiracial and diverse, the “Occupy Movement” has been founded within the context of economic exploitation and inequality, similar to Dr. King’s Chicago-based “Poor People's Campaign” and its “Operation Bread Basket Campaign”, headed by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senior, which prompted Americans to reflect, once again, on the underlying principles that the country and its citizenry hold dear.
Therefore, in continuing to sing “Eplurubus Unum” (or “Unity in Diversity”) as it has been done over the years, it is important to return to basics, during the 2013 King Day Holiday observance, at least in order to remember the late President Reagan’s memorable words, which exhorted all of Americans, as part of Dr"> King’s beloved community notion to eschew bigotry. In doing so, Americans and other observers of Dr King’s birthday may realise that the 2013 King birthday holiday should, again, be seen as “a day on, not a day off”, just as Dr King, as an 84-year old , would have liked it to be!
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* Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh (Ph.D., J.D.), a licensed Attorney and a political Scientist, is Vice-President for the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) and Professor of Political Science at University of Oregon. A.B. Assensoh (Ph.D.), a Historian and Journalist, is History professor Emeritus at Indiana University and Courtesy professor of History at the University of Oregon (History Department).