A few years back, during that nightmare called the Bush Administration, a petition was going around to try to prevent the United States from going to war in Iraq. A phone petition was put in place to encourage those against the war to telephone the White House and peacefully make their convictions known. I decided to call in. Since I worked at Nashotah House, I had forgotten that Martin Luther King Day was a national holiday (the seminary did not commemorate it). I telephoned the White House from my office only to receive a recorded message stating that the offices were closed because it was “President’s Day”! I hung up astonished. Our own government did not know what day it was (in retrospect, not such a surprise —).
A couple of years later while I was working on my book of holidays for children, I recalled the incident. It still strikes me as very odd, given the importance of today’s commemoration. I am including below my brief write-up for Martin Luther King Day from my still unpublished book:
One of the few national holidays in the United States to honor an individual is Martin Luther King Day. There are only three individual based holidays – Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day are the other two. Martin Luther King Day is observed on the third Monday of January, and it had a hard time making it through the government process of becoming an official holiday. It seems like old prejudices die hard, since the bill proposing this holiday was introduced in 1968 but was not signed into law until 1983!
Martin Luther King Day is the only national holiday commemorating an African American individual. While school kids are probably just grateful for a day off so soon after the Christmas holidays, this holiday stands out as important for many reasons. Perhaps the main reason is that the United States were united around the idea of freedom, a basic right for all in this country.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. His story of a courageous, non-violent challenge to unfair practices in the United States is an inspiration to all who care about justice. King was a Baptist minister and a main leader of the Civil Rights movement. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his example of peaceful protest; King was the youngest person to have ever been awarded this honor. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Even so, this holiday was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000.
The federal government (pay attention!), that is, the government over the whole country, has the right to set holidays. Anyone who works for the federal (national) government gets the day off. Individual states, however, can decide if they will observe the date as a holiday or not. That is why some state workers get a holiday off while those in another state do not.
The United States stands for equal rights for all citizens. King stands as a symbol for that belief and his life shows that sometimes it takes everything you’ve got to make sure that the right thing is done.
Another factoid about this holiday is that it shows just how different holidays can be from one another. Some are fun while others make us think.