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Law Related Education
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Law Related Education for the Public

January 2018, vol. 4, no. 3

MLK day will be observed as per usual, but this year it’s actually on King’s birthday

Did you know or are you surprised to learn that Congress’ move in 1983 to establish a national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and commemorate his legacy, met with controversy? It did, from southern legislators as well as from then President Ronald Reagan who opposed creating a national holiday for Dr. King who was variously described as “an outside agitator” (by Senator Strom Thurmond in 1968 following King’s assassination), and as someone who “welcomed collaboration with Communists” (by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms). To express his resistance that year, Helms led a 16-day filibuster of the MLK Holiday bill but then finally voted for it in exchange for Congress’ approval of his tobacco bill. Despite this opposition, the bipartisan vote in favor of the bill handily won the day, possibly because many Republicans may have believed they needed to show the public their support for civil rights.

And did you know that Dr. King died before he reached the age of 40, having been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4 of 1968 when he was in the midst of preparing to lead a protest march in support of the City’s striking sanitation workers? Yet in his short lifetime, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished the unimaginable, especially for a black man from the South and one advocating for peaceful integration. Thus, this year, on January 15, which is the actual date of his birth in 1929, people all over our country—and beyond—will pay homage to this great man, preacher, and acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement in America.

Even before he stepped onto the national ‘stage’ and ignited a widespread movement for peace, justice and racial equality through his electrifying voice and powerful words invoking hope for the dreamers in his audiences, Dr. King had achieved many impressive goals. King earned a B.A. in Sociology from Atlanta’s Morehouse College at the age of 19, a B.A. in Divinity just three years later and then, in 1955, a Doctorate in Systematic Theology from Boston University.

In that same year, Dr. King was chosen by local civil rights activists to lead a one-day boycott of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Their protest was spurred by area residents upset when Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested on the bus she was taking home from work for violating the City’s segregation laws that applied to public accommodations. Parks had refused the order of the bus driver to give up her seat to a white man who had been standing on the crowded bus and who, under local law, was entitled to preferential seating because of his race. That single day turned into a year which is how long it took Montgomery to desegregate the buses.

On August 28, 1963, King delivered perhaps his most stirring and memorable speech, one that has come to be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. To the 250,000 people who were participants in an organized march that ended in Washington, D.C., King pronounced: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” In that same speech he made the dream even more personal when he stated: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The theme of non-judgmental equality and respect for human rights and opportunity for all without regard to color resonated with many individuals besides those in the gathered crowd which is what King intended: that his message of hope would take hold across the nation and trigger needed changes in the law.

The era of the sixties was also witness to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. King—in 1964. In the presentation to King, Nobel Committee Chairman Gunnar Jahn described the Reverend as an “undaunted champion of peace” who had distinguished himself by showing that “a struggle can be waged without violence.” Mr. Jahn also praised Dr. King for never abandoning his faith despite his having been subjected to numerous imprisonments and bomb threats, as well as repeated death threats against him and his family.

Sadly, as we all know, this decade didn’t end well. Dr. King’s good fortune and possibly the momentum toward a more civil and just society, took a tragic turn on April 4, 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

If you wish to read more about Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy, check out the University of Chicago’s website at http://mlk.uchicago.edu/ which offers significant material about the subject and identifies volunteer activities for commemorating the Holiday. The University also invites individuals to “voice” their dreams on the MLK Dream Wall at: http://dream.uchicago.edu/. Much historic detail is available on the website for the National Park Service’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial located in Washington, D.C. That site is accessible at: https://www.nps.gov/mlkm. Teachers will also find many resources for observing the Holiday at www.MLKDay.gov. Participating in a ‘Day of Service’ as part of the MLK, Jr. Holiday is a way to help preserve Dr. King’s legacy and keep the torch of equality burning.

An additional reference is The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, which Mrs. Coretta Scott King established in tribute to her husband, not as a ‘dead monument’ but as a living testimonial that would engage and empower visitors. The King Center offers a chance to enter your dream and choose up to five ‘themes’ to tag it. If your dream is approved after review, it will be posted on the Center’s website. Check it all out at http://thekingcenter.org.