In 1983, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the law honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. with a federal holiday. That’s a historical fact. But that single fact doesn’t acknowledge the complex, multi-level, multi-year strategy and activism that achieved that victory.
As the 30th national holiday approaches, it’s a good time to remember what it took for us to get here and to consider – in light of the ongoing challenges to equal opportunity – our continuing obligation to “stand up for the best in the American dream.”
The campaign for the holiday began only days after Dr. King’s assassination. Legislation was introduced in Congress on April 8, 1968 by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, but that bill and several others were consistently derailed by lawmakers who resented both Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. After a long campaign that included the largest petition drive in history, the law passed. The holiday was observed for the first time on Jan. 20, 1986.
Back then, my suburban Salt Lake City school district did not close for the holiday. That first year, I decided that my class was going to celebrate.
There was not a black or brown face among my 6th-graders. That made it imperative that we honor Dr. King. I thought we should read an excerpt from one of Dr. King’s speeches and learn a movement song like “We Shall Overcome.” I decided, however, that my students needed more context to understand Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. So I constructed a two-week curriculum using a video from the documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” and we talked about the death in 1955 – the year I was born – of a Black 14-year-old named Emmett Till in Money, Miss.
My students were shocked by the brutal murder of Emmett, who was just a few years older than them. They understood it was a warning to all Black Mississippians: Stay in your place. But instead, his murder inspired boys and girls and their mothers and fathers, ministers and neighbors, to fight injustice with the only power they had – pure moral integrity.
For two weeks, my students were immersed in this history. They asked amazing questions and shared wondrous insights. They understood the price that was paid for an American ideal: Justice for all.
Later, I was put in charge of our school’s observance of the holiday. This was after the state legislature finally decided, in 2000, to rename our faceless “Human Rights Day” in honor of Dr. King. Utah was the last state to do so.
At a faculty meeting, I was enthusiastically running down a long list of activities when a teacher raised his hand. Genuinely confused, he said, “I don’t get why we’re doing this. We don’t have any black students here.”
I was stunned and speechless. Thankfully, another teacher filled the silence. “That’s why it’s even more important that we do something,” she said. “Otherwise, our kids might think Martin Luther King was a black hero instead of an American hero.”
Many years later, I was privileged to be present in October 2011 when President Barack Obama dedicated the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. It is a monument to untold millions who struggled for equality and respect. But it is fitting that the memorial tell one person’s story. It is in the stories of our heroes that we recognize their humanity and glimpse our courage.
As I think about what so many people did to bring about the holiday in Dr. King’s honor, I am awed by their sense of purpose and relentlessness. And I am even more inspired when I reflect on Dr. King’s too-short life of activism and leadership. In fewer than 13 years, hand-in-hand with many whose names we’ll never know, he changed America and the world.
All of that tells me that wherever we are in our journey, we can choose to be activists. We can be like the 17-year old Native American student in California who created a program to encourage other Native Americans to stay in school, or the educators in Minneapolis who galvanized the community to pull the plug on a phonics program that was filled with race, gender, and cultural stereotypes.
Whether our activism happens in the classroom or in the neighborhood, in the state capitol or at the U.S. Congress, we can decide at any point to speak up for justice and opportunity. The arc continues to bend toward justice. That is reason enough to reflect and be inspired by a movement.