By George Cassidy Payne
On October 19, 1983, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Bill was sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 78-22. On November 3, 1983, President Reagan signed the bill establishing the 3rd Monday of every January as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday, beginning in 1986.
Even with this vaunted status as one of only 10 federal holidays, MLK Day is not treated with the proper respect that it deserves. The UPS still comes to the door with Amazon packages. People keep clocking in at their jobs. The bars and restaurants stay open for some of their best lunches and early dinners of the winter season. Civil life goes on, for the most part, as if nothing special is occurring at all. People get haircuts, go to the movies, make grocery lists, pick up their kids at practice, and go back out for a quick workout at the gym. Sure, there are songfests, speeches, museum exhibits, television specials, ribbon cuttings, naming streets, and a hundred other ceremonial acts that occur all over the nation, but my feeling is that most Americans do not pay attention or participate in anything that has to do with upholding or honoring Dr. King’s memory.
Regarding the closing of schools, if King had a say, he would want the youth to stay in school. Make it a day about social justice, civil rights, human dignity, and freedom for all. Make it a day about developing conflict resolution skills and learning how to become peacemakers. King would not want kids at home playing video games, on the couch watching TV, or in their room talking on their cell phones. As early as 1947, while King was attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, he was working out his philosophy of education. King wrote in the student newspaper:
“It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man (and woman) to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the ligitimate goals of their life…Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
If MLK Day is not helping to train youth to be educated in the way King described in his speech above, I do not think he would want anything to do with this holiday. I am pretty sure that he would be embarrassed by the rampant idolization of his words and image. I am also sure that he would be disturbed by the co-opting of his theology. The only redeeming value Dr. King would find in having a day to recognize his achievements would be if millions of students had an opportunity to learn more about the vital skills needed to make peace. He certainly would have detested the idea of a day off in his name to get errands done.
George Cassidy Payne of Rochester, New York, is a freelance writer, adjunct professor of philosophy, and domestic violence counselor.