For most of us, the third Monday in January has become just another day off. Another day to sit around on Facebook, catch up on Twitter, clean up the house or get a great sale price on something else we don’t really need (do we have MLK Day sales yet?) Other holidays or days of remembrance have been equally diluted of meaning. Does anyone ever remember to pull out the Declaration of Independence to read at the 4th of July family barbecue? Why isn’t Veteran’s Day ever moved to a Monday, like other holidays, but must always be celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month?
In a diverse and multi-ethnic society like we have here in the United States, national holidays are crucial to creating a unifying story for the people. Certainly almost everyone who is here knows why we celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day, and why we gather around for a big meal with family in November to celebrate Thanksgiving. But other holidays, such as Columbus Day and even Christmas, have recently fallen into some controversy and disfavor, because our attitudes and demographics have changed.
Columbus Day, in particular, has been scrutinized by social critics and political activists, and is countered in many Latin American countries and some Native and Mexican American communities with “Dia de la Raza”, the Day of the Race. This kind of social conflict is caused by the same thing that also constitutes our greatest strength; our diversity. But if it is left to fester and grow virulent, this kind of disharmony in our grand national consciousness can and will explode.
Thus, holidays and national celebrations, especially for a secularized society like ours, take on greater importance. For there remains at the core of who we are, one unfortunate, irreconcilable truth. That we come from many backgrounds and start in differing circumstances and therefore, jump in at very dissimilar places in the story that is America. But just as we are many, we are expected to come together as one (E Pluribus Unum) and we can gain some understanding of what we revere as a country by looking at our national holidays.
A quick survey of these days reveals that we value our freedom (4th of July), honor our soldiers (Veterans Day and Memorial Day) and prize our work (Labor Day). Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations tend to focus our attention on families and sharing of our good fortunes with others, so these holidays highlight our generosity and community. Presidents Day celebrates Washington’s birthday, though most people assume it also commemmorates Lincoln’s birth, and is a nod to a recognition of our own history, our admiration of great leaders, and an invitation to learn more about the United States.
Then there is Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, which we celebrate on the third Monday of every January. Today. And what are we supposed to be celebrating? Certainly it is a day to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to acknowledge his place in the history of our country. I’ve heard some media figures and national leaders, including President Obama, suggest that today be used as a day of service, which is a good place to start.
But to me, there seems to be something missing in the way we honor Dr. King’s memory if we only offer our service or volunteer our efforts one day of the year. We also miss the point of Dr. King’s mission if we only remember him as a civil rights leader, for he was much more than that. Though the focus of his work concerned equal rights for Black Americans, Martin Luther King also fought for workers’ rights, labor unions and was an outspoken critic of the War in Vietnam. More importantly, throughout all of these struggles, Dr. King organized grass roots forces whose racial, political, ethnic and religious backgrounds represented every band of the spectrum.
Perhaps this, then, is what we are celebrating today, not just the man. We are celebrating the power of the people, the will of the masses, and our ability to change course as a nation when we work together. Today is a day to acknowledge the many faces at every rally, boycott and march that is obscured in the background of every picture where MLK stands front and center. For without them, without us, without the people gathering in numbers to stand up for what is right, there would be no legacy to celebrate.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day and thank you for stopping by.
Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2010. All rights reserved.