The Dallas Examiner
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a national Civil Rights Movement for equality and justice in housing, education and employment, from 1955 to 1968. Yet, it took a 15-year effort to commemorate his birthday at a national level.
To bring this discussion to the forefront, “The Controversial History of MLK Day” was held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Jan. 14.
“I made the choice to do this particular topic because it intrigued me that it did take so long,” remarked the presenter, Shannon Adams, librarian manager at the center. “One thing that I experienced just through research, and life, is that the biggest obstacle … is because of fear – fear of the unknown. And I do believe that maybe it was fear that maybe provoked the pushback. But I couldn’t be certain because, just given my research, I wasn’t able to locate any of the reasons behind it.”
Those attending the program suggested racism and mistrust of new ideas were at the core of the political foot-dragging.
The holiday, observed on the third Monday in January, was not passed until Nov. 2, 1983, around the time Adams was four years old, even though King had reached national prominence for his nonviolent resistance in support of racial and economic equality before his murder in 1968.
His wife, Coretta Scott King, had been vocal about the holiday since the death of her husband, and it was in 1979 that Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Sen. Edward Brooke, R-Mass., introduced into Congress a bill to establish King’s birthday as a national holiday.
Even then, resistance to the idea remained.
“We are the Martin Luther King Library, and so we take pride in knowing a little bit of history about Martin Luther King,” Adams said with a chuckle as she mentioned her research took approximately six months.
Notably, the president who was against the holiday originally was also the president who eventually signed the King bill into law. Ronald Reagan asked at one point during his presidency “…where will it end?” at the suggestion of a day recognizing the reverend.
He was answered by Eddie Murphy during a Weekend Update segment on Saturday Night Live with the question, “What the hell, Ron – where will it begin?”
Adams proposed that once fear – even with racism as its basis, unintentional or otherwise – was addressed, people are more willing to budge on new or more progressive ideas. The more difficult task involves those who make the conscious choice to refuse to move forward.
“How does anyone deal with that?” she pondered. “I just take it with a grain of salt because one thing I’ve learned in life is that you can’t change anyone’s mind. We can try to persuade people with facts and truth, but in the end if they just don’t want to make a change they’re not going to make the change.
“And I would hope that one day – like Martin Luther King said – one day we would see a change because, like Reagan was finally pushed to sign off on it, maybe one day if enough people stand up then it will be for change.”
Although Reagan claimed that cost was one of the issues he had in standing against a King holiday, he eventually signed the bill introduced by Rep. Katie Hall, D-Ind., which also established the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. The King holiday became the 10th and most recent federal holiday, as well as the first federal holiday recognizing a Black American.
One attendee of the presentation, IT professional Jeremy Lewis, pointed out that some states, such as Mississippi, continue to observe Robert E. Lee’s birthday the same day as the King holiday to cover both leaders, rather than add the MLK day and end the Lee tradition.
He mentioned that, at 32, he wanted to learn more about how the holiday was established.
“I think it speaks to the progress we have made in this country, as well as the work that still needs to be done. The fact that it took so long and that there was pushback and still continues to be pushback speaks to how certain members of society are unwilling to embrace diversity and civil rights,” he confessed in regard to the mixed feelings the embattled holiday’s past engendered within him.
It was for residents like Lewis that Adams especially created her presentation, admitting that the less that past movements or historical events are recalled, the more likely they will be forgotten, which creates further consequences.
“… The more they’re not talked about, the more that they become one of those things that aren’t getting discussed among the younger generation, therefore they don’t see the significance,” she said. “They don’t see the importance to vote, so, from the first part, I wanted to hear from the people of today their opinions of MLK Day and why it’s important and its significance.”
Another attendee, Christopher Catchings, 31, offered his thoughts on the noteworthiness of the holiday.
“I was more curious to know if other people were more putting into practice what was really important to me,” voiced Catchings, also an IT professional.
“Coming to a celebration of MLK, I expected to be around like-minded individuals who wanted to celebrate his legacy, as well as wanting to embrace the change that’s happening in the country,” he said.
However, he conceded that he felt let down by the attention the holiday presently receives.
“I’m honestly pessimistic, but that’s only because I do think more needs to be done,” he explained. “I personally want to be more active in civil rights because of the lack of diversity and participation sometimes that I’m seeing at events. If we’re hosting MLK events, I want to see everyone there reflected, not just other African Americans, because civil rights leads to everyone.”
Catchings cited less of a pushback of years past and more of a general apathy towards the King holiday currently, celebrating it is a national holiday rather than simply an African American holiday.
“Absolutely,” he affirmed. “It should be as equally important to everyone, including foreign-born American citizens.”