Martin Luther King Jr Day 2015: Holiday or Day of Service?

Twitter: @1PeopleMW

Let me get right to the point because frankly I don’t want to spend any more time on this post than necessary. I was appalled to discover there was a national movement to recognize Martin Luther King Jr Day 2015 as “a day of service;” What really got my goat was their slogan suggesting we make it a “day on, not a day off.” I found out about this national day on via a group text message encouraging those who received the text to be of service on that approaching day. So after I viewed the MLK Jr Day of Service website I did what any red-blooded American would do; I tweeted my frustration.

Name one other holiday whose sovereignty as a day off from work is being opposed in this way? In any way? And why the blatant reference to work, as to suggest if you’re not going to work that day don’t just be home doing nothing, be somewhere other than home being of service to someone, anyone but yourself? Labor Day is known as a holiday dedicated to taking a day off work, but I don’t recall seeing a national campaign opposed to it. Some of us even get two days off for Thanksgiving; one of which is dedicated to spending money. Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree a person should do what it is he or she does on that day. Just don’t let this day be demoted from holiday to a day of expected service. I don’t need an excuse to take off work for any other holiday. Why do I need an excuse for this one?

I realize that on its face it sounds like a noble idea; being of service to others on a day dedicated to one of America’s greatest servant. And I might agree that it is good idea, at the individual level. If an individual or even a small group of individuals decide locally to be of service on this or any holiday, nothing would be more honorable. As long as it remains a choice. At the national level however this obligation has unintended consequences. The moment servitude becomes an expectation it can no longer be a sacrifice. The founders of this movement took their preference too far, inadvertently condemning those who choose not to serve. At least I hope it was inadvertent. Simply put, to challenge the sovereignty of this holiday in this way is contemptible!

History of the King Holiday
President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed three years later. At first, some states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

The idea of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday was promoted by labor unions in contract negotiations. After King’s death, United States Representative John Conyers (a Democrat from Michigan) and United States Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican from Massachusetts) introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday. The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979. However, it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage.[3] Two of the main arguments mentioned by opponents were that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive, and that a holiday to honor a private citizen would be contrary to longstanding tradition (King had never held public office). Only two other people have national holidays in the United States honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.

Soon after, the King Center turned to support from the corporate community and the general public. The success of this strategy was cemented when musician Stevie Wonder released the single “Happy Birthday” to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. Six million signatures were collected for a petition to Congress to pass the law, termed by a 2006 article in The Nation as “the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history.

Senators Jesse Helms and John Porter East (both North Carolina Republicans) led opposition to the bill and questioned whether King was important enough to receive such an honor. Helms criticized King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and accused him of espousing “action-oriented Marxism”. Helms led a filibuster against the bill and on October 3, 1983, submitted a 300-page document to the Senate alleging that King had associations with communists. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the document a “packet of filth”, threw it on the Senate floor and stomped on it.

(“King Holiday” is an R&B/Hip-Hop single released on January 13, 1986 by the King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew. Composed by Phillip Jones, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Melle Mel and Bill Adler, it was released in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which was first celebrated as a national holiday in the United States on January 20, 1986. All proceeds from the single were donated to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The single peaked at No.30 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart. The project was spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s youngest son, Dexter Scott King, who is credited as the song’s executive producer)

President Ronald Reagan originally opposed the holiday, citing cost concerns. When asked to comment on Helms’ accusations that King was a communist, the President said “We’ll know in thirty-five years, won’t we?” He later signed the measure, after it passed with a 338 to 90 veto-proof margin in favor in the House of Representatives.

Arizona governor Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, created a paid state MLK holiday in Arizona by executive order just before he left office in 1986, but his Republican successor Evan Mecham, armed with an attorney general’s opinion that Babbitt’s order was illegal, rescinded it days after he took office. In 1990, Arizona voters were given the opportunity to vote on giving state employees an MLK holiday. That same year, the National Football League threatened to move Super Bowl XXVII, which was planned for Arizona in 1993, if the MLK holiday was voted down. In the November election, 51% of voters rejected the King holiday. Consequently, the state “lost $500 million and the Super Bowl,” which was held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. In a 1992 referendum, the voters approved state-level recognition of the holiday.

In 1991, the New Hampshire legislature created “Civil Rights Day” and abolished “Fast Day”. In 1999, “Civil Rights Day” was officially changed to “Martin Luther King Day,” becoming the last state to have a holiday named after Dr. King.

On May 2, 2000, South Carolina governor Jim Hodges signed a bill to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday an official state holiday. South Carolina was the last state to recognize the day as a paid holiday for all state employees. Prior to this, employees could choose between celebrating Martin Luther King Day or one of three Confederate holidays.

Overall, in 2007, 33% of employers gave employees the day off, a 2% increase over the previous year. There was little difference in observance by large and small employers: 33% for firms with over 1,000 employees; and, 32% for firms with under 1,000 employees. The observance is most popular among nonprofit organizations and least popular among factories and manufacturers. The reasons for this have varied, ranging from the recent addition of the holiday, to its occurrence just two weeks after the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when many businesses are closed for part or sometimes all of the week. Additionally, many schools and places of higher education are closed for classes; others remain open but may hold seminars or celebrations of King’s message. Some factories and manufacturers used MLK Day as a floating or movable holiday. Many business that used to close on Presidents’ Day now stay open on that day and close on MLK Day instead. source: Wikipedia

I am not as fortunate to work for a company that gives its employees Martin Luther King Jr Day off, however I am grateful my employer permits me to use my own personal time off specifically to observe this day, for the past 8 years. And I have noticed a steady decrease in the stares and questions from my white co-workers with each passing year. You know, the “he must have taken the black holiday off” stares or questions regarding my absence yesterday; whether or not it was a year I chose to stay home or participate in a local MLK event. In fact there were no stares or questions to speak of this year. Is this progress? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t go spraining my arm patting anyone on the back.

There are many authors of Dr. King’s legacy, some no older than Martin Luther King Jr. was at the time of his murder. Anytime anyone speaks definitively about what Dr. King would say, do, or feel about the condition of black people today are essentially putting pen to page of the dynamic legacy that is Dr. King; altering it in the process. And it’s done not necessarily with malice, but certainly without regard to historical accuracy. Just as the concepts of “America” evolves into something more polished while omitting previously recognized flaws with every political campaign speech or corporate commercial sound bite. We’ve all heard the rhetoric; “America is the land of equality,” or “Americans are caring people,” or a 2010 Dodge© Super Bowl commercial referencing the American Revolutionary war that boasts “America got freedom right.” (In this commercial a slave owner, George Washington, was driving a Dodge Challenger towards the British.)

In much the same manner Dr. King’s legacy is periodically expanded to include content not present in his day. Like how over the years Dr. King has gone from the FBI’s public enemy number one to America’s Nobel Peace Prize winning son. Or how a strategy of non-violent resistance regarding civil unrest has morphed into a one size fits all vegan-like turn the other cheek attitude for all of life’s problems. Even details of Dr. King’s womanizing are often “passed over” in the retelling of his tale, for the greater good.

What am I referencing that has been added to Dr. King’s legacy? I am referring to his holiday becoming promoted as a day of service in 2015. First, it must be pointed out that Dr. King was not travelling the country or world for that matter in the 1950’s 1960’s speaking to black people about being of service within their community and to others. It sounds good but this was not the case. Dr. King spoke to audiences of people, black and white, primarily about what the American government owes to its citizens of African heritage. Not what the Negro had yet to do for his country, but what his country has yet to do for the negro. A check marked insufficient funds and what not. And second, the notion of a “working holiday” (an oxymoron) was definitely nowhere near Dr. King’s agenda in the months leading up to his death. Dr. King was not in pursuit of a holiday in his honor. Therefore to have modern day authors of his legacy insist that Dr. King would have us be of service on his holiday day when holidays have never been framed in that way before or otherwise is absurd.

Some of authors of Dr. King’s legacy would have us believe mandating his holiday be a day of service is what Dr. King would have wanted. Yet having a holiday honoring a black man be reduced to a day of service is no different than any other “separate but equal” policy of his day. I would suspect that if a national holiday honoring the great Frederick Douglass was established in February 1950 and after years of resistance from several state governments be repackaged as a day of service, Dr. King would cite the customs on Presidents Day and Independence Day as evidence to the contrary.

Thousands of years ago whenever a king declared a holiday the people rejoiced, not worked. They feasted, not toiled. Sure, a goodwill was done randomly here and there, but this was not considered service to others, nor were these good deeds done by federal or social mandate. (These days having a website end in “.gov” carries as much weight in the average American’s mind as a government seal.)

In closing, and I cannot stress this enough, I am sincerely concern about the sovereignty of the holiday being voluntarily given away by so called voices of the black community under the guise of a “day of service.” I am not concern about being labelled as lazy for just taking a day off from work whatsoever. Nor am I advocating that no service be rendered that day. But I’m asking that we see this “day on” policy as a benefit to the mortal enemies of the King holiday, who have a history of renaming the holiday as a method to divert honor from the man. Well, I am sad to report that in 2015 it seems the friends of King Day were duped into doing the same.

I realize this is a very spirited post (a.k.a. a one-way debate), but I will not apologize for my passionate argument. After all, isn’t that what personal Blogs are for?

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