Like many things in Dr. King’s life, the federal holiday that bears his name did not come without a struggle. Almost immediately after King was assassinated, members of Congress attempted to establish his birthday, Jan. 15, as a national holiday.
Predictably, knuckle-draggers like Sen. Jesse Helms who’d never managed to wrap their arms around that infuriating 14th Amendment to our Constitution questioned whether King was worthy of the honor. It wasn’t until 1986 that Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday.
Connecticut was one of a handful of states that had previously observed a holiday for Dr. King at the state level, enacting the King holiday in 1974. However, it wasn’t until 2000 that Gov. Rowland mandated the new federal holiday be recognized as a paid day off for all state employees. That was also the first year Martin Luther King Day was observed in all 50 states. Until then, several states performed a set of semantic gymnastics to marginalize the importance of the day.
Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Virginia actually combined the holiday with an official recognition of Robert E. Lee. (That’s like sitting the Hatfields and McCoys next to each other at dinner.) New Hampshire declared it “Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day,” while Idaho refers to it as “Martin Luther King Jr. – Idaho Human Rights Day.” Is it really so hard for some people to admit the impact Dr. King had on our country, to acknowledge one of the few contemporary heroes around which we can all rally?
Most fittingly, Congress designated Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national day of service in 1994. In keeping with his teachings, the Corporation for National and Community Service states that “the MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community … a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.”
Or, as Dr. King himself once said, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.”
You can search for local volunteer opportunities in our community or plan your own project at http://mlkday.gov. Some of the opportunities you’ll find there include an event hosted by the University of Bridgeport on Jan. 18 between 8:30 and 3, where Great Oaks AmeriCorps members will participate in events including making blankets for the homeless and discussing the achievements of Dr. King.
You could use the day to find other local opportunities that need help on a more regular basis at createthegood.org (just enter your ZIP code to refine your search).
Two great places that aren’t listed on that site are Pencils of Promise (pencilsofpromise.org), an organization that helps build schools in underserved countries, and Community Plates (communityplates.org), committed to ending American food insecurity by directly transferring fresh, usable food that would have otherwise been thrown away from restaurants, markets and other food industry sources to families in need.
Regardless of how you plan to serve, it’s a wonderful opportunity to reflect not only on the struggle for basic freedoms Dr. King highlighted for us but also the legacy so many fought to discount. Have a wonderful and productive Martin Luther King Jr. Day!
You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net, contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.