On the first observance of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a federal holiday 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan said it was a time for rejoicing and reflecting.
“We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded. We reflect on his words and his works,” Reagan said.
We still rejoice and reflect on the life of the Baptist minister and civil rights icon who was assassinated April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. He would have turned 87 on Jan. 15. But our troubled times demand more.
People gather for prayer breakfasts and worship services, read King’s writings and tell his stories to younger generations and listen to choirs and panel discussions of King’s legacy. Some will emulate King’s struggle by marching in Black Lives Matter protests.
The holiday also inspires volunteering. President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act, establishing the holiday as a national day of service, in 1994.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans, starting with President Barack Obama and his family, join in the day of service, “picking up the baton handed to us by past generations and carrying forward their efforts,” Obama said last year.
In his final State of the Union address, Obama said he is inspired by the “voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white ... but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”
We hear precious little about unconditional love in politics, but King said in his 1964 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
Obama said the voices of truth and love “don’t get a lot of attention; they don’t seek a lot of fanfare; but they’re busy doing the work this country needs doing.”
After 30 years, most people may not remember that Congress dithered for 15 years before enacting the holiday. Congress finally passed the bill and Reagan signed it in 1983, effective in 1986. Some states dragged their feet even longer on adopting a state holiday for King. The last was New Hampshire in 1999.
Even today, the holiday remains contentious in a few states.
Three states — Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi — celebrate the birthdays of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and King on the same day. The joint holiday once may have seemed a pragmatic compromise but now is cringe-worthy, especially as Southern states have reconsidered or removed vestiges of their Confederate past.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, told reporters Jan. 6 that he hoped the legislature will separate the King and Lee birthdays. An effort to do so last year failed.
Virginia separated King from Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 2000 and now has a state holiday honoring the Confederates on the Friday before the King holiday on the third Monday in January. Richmond, Lynchburg, Bristol and several other cities in Virginia no longer observe the Lee-Jackson holiday.
Alabama still has three state holidays honoring Confederate heroes. Besides the King-Lee holiday, Confederate Memorial Day is April 25 and Jefferson Davis’ birthday is June 6. Alabama is the only state with a holiday honoring the president of the Confederacy.
And the King holiday can be fraught with peril for politicians. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton got in hot water in 2006 when she said at an MLK holiday event in Harlem that the GOP-led House of Representatives has been run “like a plantation — and you know what I’m talking about.”
Republicans insisted they were not racist. A Democratic senator from Illinois named Barack Obama defended Clinton.
As people drive to their volunteer service on King’s birthday, some will travel on a street named for him. About 900 boulevards, avenues, streets and courts in the United States are named for the civil rights leader, most in the Southeast.
Naming those streets often has been political, says Derek Alderman, geography professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, who has studied the issue since the 1990s.
Ironically, many streets named for the champion of justice and equality — political and financial — are in blighted and segregated communities. They serve as a graphic reminder of the civil rights struggles that remain three decades after the first national holiday for King’s birthday.