Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Happy Birthday, Dr. King

January 13th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

It was with interest that I read the editorial by the Daily Southtown guest editorial writer Dale McFeatters. Titled, “For better or worse, King Day now a ‘routine’ holiday,” the opinion piece provides an informative history of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, including the initial resistance of states like Arizona, and then president Ronald Reagan’s grudging acceptance of the observance, “since they seem bent on making it a national holiday.”

McFeatters concludes his editorial by expressing the concern that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day might become, “just another three-day weekend.” I have heard this concern echoed many times, by friends, co-workers, and by administrators at the various colleges I have been affiliated with over the years. To prevent MLK, Jr. Day from become just another day off, many colleges have gone to great lengths to provide wonderful and richly informative day-long programs of events that remind us of the legacy of this great leader, and to encourage us to perpetuate his values and his vision.

I recall with particular fondness the annual MLK, Jr. Day celebration at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It was truly an amazing phenomenon to witness the events filled to standing-room-only capacity, with students of all ethnicities clamoring to hear the wisdom and insights of those invited to campus to share their insights on civil rights and social justice. Before and after the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events the administrators of the University would proudly declare that they were not going let his holiday become just another day off.

At the same time that I give kudos to those who have worked to make each MLK, Jr. Day celebration a day for dialogue and exploration, though, I also accept that for some this holiday has already become just another day off. I would be greatly saddened if MLK, Jr. Day stopped being a day for the examination of the issues and concerns that Dr. King brought to national attention. But I also believe that “just another three-day weekend,” isn’t such a bad legacy either. An extra day for fishing or shopping or traveling, for watching sports all day with your buddies, for chatting on the phone all day to friends, or maybe for just hanging around at home, with a cold drink, a good book, and your favorite music on the stereo–well, that is a part of Dr. King’s legacy, too. His dream was a dream of access for all people to the freedoms, rights, opportunities, and pleasures of this nation.

In 1955, when, shortly after completing his doctorate, the young minister joined the Montgomery Bus Boycott, many African Americans were employed as farmworkers and domestics who had little or no time off for any reason. Indeed, reasonable work hours, fair wages, and employee rights were the domain of the white middle- and upper-classes. That a critical mass of U.S. residents can take this or any holiday off to explore the legacy of a great visionary, or to sit around the house watching soap operas all day is a marker of how much farther we have moved as a nation toward real, true equality. And this is largely thanks to the life, labor, and sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was an intellectual and a visionary, a scholar, an activist, and a man of God.

On Monday, I will start my day at the gym, as I do every Monday. And as I go through my workout I will look at the wide range of people–old and young, African American, white, Asian, and Latino–enjoying the facilities at this admittedly fancy athletic club, I will think of Dr. King, and I will smile.

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