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What Martin Luther King Day Means in 2016

By James Hoyle
On January 26, 2016

By the time of this issue of The Concordian has been released, another Martin Luther King Jr. Day will have passed. Like many other federal holidays (with the exceptions of Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and possibly Veteran’s Day), Martin Luther King Day often gets signed off as being one more excuse to have a day off from school or work and the meaning of it is often forgotten. While it is nice to have an extra day to snooze and cope with a new semester, to not reflect on why we have the day off in the first place would be a disservice both to Dr. King and the legacy that he left behind. 

    Martin Luther King Jr. Day, according to The King Center, was first proposed in a bi-partisan motion on April 8, 1968, merely four days after King’s assassination. The date for the holiday would be the third Monday of January. It was signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1983, and it was first officially observed in 1986. It was not an immediate hit in some states despite it being a federal holiday. At first, it was observed in some states by pairing it with other holidays, and other states boycotted it outright. As the years went by however, the holiday became free of the constraints of other holidays and people became more accepting of it. With South Carolina being the last state to recognize its legal status, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially celebrated in all 50 states in the year 2000, and has been universally observed ever since. 

    The holiday itself is designed to be a celebration and a remembrance of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., a pastor who in the 1960s found himself front-and-center in a battle for what it means to be a free individual in the United States of America. It was one of the biggest discussions about freedom in America since the American Civil War. Unlike the Civil War however, the question was not debated with guns and canons, but, for a time, with peaceful protest. Inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi (who in turn was inspired by Russian author Leo Tolstoy), King led demonstrations across the country to not only end Jim Crow laws, but to also raise awareness of the economic inequality between the rich and the poor. King, as a Baptist preacher, believed that since we are all equal in the eyes of God, we should therefore be equal in the laws of America. Known for his fiery speeches that have since gone down as some of the best ever recorded, King’s ability to rouse a crowd would help lead to several reforms throughout the 1960s.

    Despite the magnitude of Dr. King’s legacy, many seem to be blind to it and just appreciate the man as he is remembered: behind a glass case, a statue in Washington D.C, an unknowable, unattainable ideal to preach to children. More importantly, he has become institutionalized, and therefore “safe.” But this version of Martin Luther King, this aspect of a very multifaceted man is a sanitized depiction at best and untrue one at worst. The way he is shown these days is as if his ideas were some kind of miraculous revelation that everyone secretly wished for. However, his prison record and his assassination say otherwise. Martin Luther King Jr. was a revolutionary in every sense of the word, and his message is in several ways too difficult for many to understand even today. Otherwise sensible men and women fought tooth and nail against his cause. While his vision of equality ultimately proved to be correct, it was only the conviction of himself and his followers that allowed his ideas to become more than that. The truth is not a popularity contest. What might be seen as okay at one time may not in fact be morally right. Dr. King realized this, and worked until he drew his last breath to lead people to the truth.

    Martin Luther King Jr. Day fell on January 18 this year. As the day passed, I thought of Dr. King, and I realized the real legacy he left behind. Martin Luther King Jr. was nothing more or less than a man of passion. There was nothing outstanding about him other than an iron will, the courage to stand up against injustice, and an extraordinary passion for moral truth. His passion for his cause led him to put everything on the line. It allowed the passion of other like-minded individuals to be realized. His passion led to a positive change in society. It also led to his death. He was a firm believer in the potential for good in the soul of every man and woman, an ideal that has lost favor in a society that is post-everything except poverty. That belief in doing the right thing no matter the cost is exactly what this country needs in order for it to become what it needs to be in the future. It made me wonder if I am willing to die for what is right. I also wondered if our leaders are willing to do the same. 

    2016 is an election year. For the first time in eight years, there will be no incumbent running. At this critical time in our country’s history, I ask everyone, no matter who they support, to examine their candidate closely and see if they are willing to risk everything for the good of the country, and if they are not, then why are they supporting them? Dr. King, and all those who have fought for and are fighting for justice have sacrificed too much for a potential president to undue decades of work. America needs a leader with not just a backbone, but also a sense of right and wrong, and above all, a compassion for all that suffer. These qualities are necessary for the future of America, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy will forever be a dusty mantelpiece trophy of a bygone era rather than a living organ beating alongside the heart of the nation.

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