Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021

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Monday, January 18 marks the 35th anniversary of the federal holiday in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Signed into law in 1983 and first observed in 1986, the holiday is a deserving tribute to King for advancing civil rights and social justice through non-violent protest. His was only the second birthday designated as a federal holiday after the observance of George Washington’s birthday. The making of their respective holidays reveals the still unresolved tension between independence and freedom in the making of the United States.

Washington secured the nascent democracy as general and as its first president (1789-1799). As a Baptist pastor, King led a mass movement for freedom and human rights in the twentieth century. Washington accepted slavery even while he defended the revolution. In confronting white supremacy, King challenged a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the United States, one that denies equality for all. One was a slave owner. The other was descended from slaves.

At 39, Dr. King was a private citizen engaged in public protest when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King was preparing to lead a march in support of striking Black sanitation workers as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. Shot in the face, King died in the company of movement associates.

Born in 1929, King’s existence as a Black man was always contingent and conditional. In insisting that America live up to its promise, Black men and women had no choice but to sacrifice their bodies and lives. King’s assassination was not the first, nor last. His 1963 protest in Birmingham, Alabama earned him worldwide attention. He brought together more than 200,000 people on the March on Washington in August 1963 where he delivered his famous “ I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, at the age of 35, he was the youngest man and the third black man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The country celebrated Washington in many ways, including readings of his farewell address and local parades. On January 31, 1879 Congress declared Washington’s birthday as a federal holiday. Even though Lincoln preserved the union during the Civil War, Washington’s birthday promoted sectional reconciliation. It focused attention on the country’s origins in revolution while ignoring slavery and the condition of Black Americans. Two years before Congress honored Washington, President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from former confederate states. This decision would facilitate the restoration of unchecked white supremacy for nearly one hundred years.

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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