The meaning of The Martin Luther King, Jr., birthday holiday in 2021

January 14, 2021

By Douglas Haynes
Vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of California, Irvine

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 (1789-1797). 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 67, Washington died on December 15, 1799 on his plantation in Mount Vernon Virginia. His wife Martha was at his side. At 39, King was a private citizen engaged in public protest when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. 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.

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.

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. NAACP representative Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his home in June 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi. Age did not exempt Black children from racial terrorism. In September four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair—were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed.

Following King’s death, multiple petitions and bills submitted to Congress proposing a federal holiday in his honor failed to garner support. However, a growing number of states observed his birthday. In the second verse of the 1980 hit song Happy Birthday, Stevie Wonder ponders

“I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition.
Because it should never be Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion”

Fifty-three years after King’s death, the promised land where Black people “take their rightful place on earth,” remains elusive. The protests against police brutality and the demonstrations in support of Black Lives are a powerful reminder that the United States has yet to fulfill its promise to Black Americans. King’s closing words at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple the night before his death captures the purpose and meaning of Black protest and sacrifice. “I might not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

On this MLK Day let us all re-dedicate ourselves to building a promised land where Black protest and sacrifice are not a requirement to live in the United States.