Sunday, January 16, 2011

Should Martin Luther King Day be a "Holiday"?

Depending on your definition of "holiday", maybe not.

For about 10 of the past 20 years, I've started Martin Luther King Day early, with the privilege of attending the annual MLK Breakfast, in Minneapolis. I've listened in person to luminaries such as Harry Belafonte (more than just a singer, believe me!), General Colin Powell, Andrew Young, Cornel West, Julian Bond, and others. In addition, twice, I attended neighborhood breakfasts, watching the annual event on a large screen, alongside others from my Saint Paul neighborhood and from the broader community. Each year, such events offer time to reflect on the principles and the values which Dr. King espoused, the inspiration he provided to us in the sixties, before his assassination, and the continuing relevance of his words to the challenges of the 21st century.

Nonetheless, in the nineties, as many organizations debated whether to offer their employees a three day weekend, or to retain Martin Luther King Day as a work day, I expressed some concerns. Might Martin Luther King Day become no more than an opportunity for recreation, with no time spent on reflection about the importance of this great human being and about the effect of all that he accomplished for our country?

Other holidays don’t have much effect on us, do they? How many of our nation's residents take time on Presidents Day to reflect on the presidency and the importance of our Constitution, the Executive Branch, and the separation of powers? How many use Washington's Birthday as an opportunity to remember the history and principles of the American Revolution, the original "Tea Party", the evolution from monarchy to democracy? How many pause on February 12 to remember the man who led our country through the struggle to free slaves and promote equality?

I suggested that we might produce more benefits by having people report for work, but requiring workplace education and discussion of the life and values of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Needless to say, such a provocative suggestion lacked political correctness; it garnered little support.

My concern returns every year, including this one. Consider this:

  • Several colleagues noted less traffic during their Friday commutes. They guessed that some commuters had likely begun their weekend early, turning it into a four-day occasion. Had people left for the weekend to visit the King historic site in Atlanta (an excellent museum; as you know if you have been there)? Had they traveled to Washington, D.C., or to any other place with special events this weekend? I think I know your answer.
  • This year, in contrast to the early years of the Minneapolis MLK Breakfast, some organizations which purchased one or more tables’ worth of tickets had trouble finding enough employees willing to attend. Why should someone get up and get out of bed at 6:00 a.m. on their “holiday”?

In fairness, Martin Luther King Day does bring out crowds to events in Minnesota – true to our deserved reputation as some of the most engaged people in the country. (See However, is it enough?

At the 2010 MLK Breakfast, the keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph Lowery, encouraged us to move from “charity” to “love”. He suggested that we not just focus on occasional, episodic endeavors to work for the good of our fellow humans, but rather that we apply ourselves continually to empowering all members of our communities to do more to increase our quality of life.

Doing what’s necessary to make this world a better place requires more than taking a “day off” on Martin Luther King Day. It requires making each of the 365 days of the year a “day on”, living out the values and vision of Dr. King, and encouraging others to do so. Let’s all make this third Monday of January 2011 a day to work hard to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. We all deserve relaxation, fun, and time with family and friends; but let’s do the work of the holiday, before we play.


Anonymous said...

Part of being given a holiday, in my opinion, is the honor it reflects. It is also a message saying, "here is someone we believe is extremely important." I may not go to the breakfast or to Washington DC for MLK Jr. Day but I think about him every year at this time because I appreciate him - and I appreciate the day off.

Anonymous said...

I see that day as a day to review life and service. I would think Dr. King worked so that many of us could work, ride on the bus, eat where we like and with who went want. But for many it's a day off or a day just for Dr. King. His work would never defined in one day or a 30min. event.