The holiday created to recognize the birth and life-work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is now in its second quarter-century and has settled nicely into the category of another much-welcomed three-day weekend, particularly appreciated during a drab stretch of winter.
All holidays offer an opportunity for respite, as well as reflection. While enjoying a day off, we visit gravesites on Memorial Day, shoot fireworks on Independence Day, and congratulate ourselves for the work we do on Labor Day.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day — this year especially — we might reflect on something that may not immediately be apparent: that this is in many ways the quintessential American holiday, with as much poignancy today as in any time in its 26-year history.
The Rev. King is honored for his work as a champion of civil rights, most often viewed through the prism of what it meant for people of African ancestry. But as King himself constantly reminded, the struggle for civil rights was not simply about race. It was, and is, about the rights a just nation confers upon all people, and enforces fairly for all people, regardless of cultural, physical or economic status.
In his emotionally stirring "I have a dream" speech, delivered during the 1963 march on Washington, he sternly warned that the struggle for civil rights would fail if it took a course of hostility and rancor. "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred," he said.
He admonished those who followed him to Washington that the quest for civil rights would succeed only if it remained civil — that the actuality of civil rights carries a prerequisite of political and social civility. It is a message that has bearing today, when the portions of civility in our national discourse can be measured in drams.
The rhetoric that attends many of our current political campaigns devotes itself to the vilification of institutions, whether it's "big government" or "greedy corporations." We hear candidates describe their opponents as puppets or cronies of those villains. The tone is too often shallow, cynical, and certainly what King would consider hostile and rancorous.
The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. was to inspire America to rise above its lesser self to a place of greater freedom and equality. He knew that progress toward overcoming our national problems is not propelled by bitterness and hatred, but by collaboration and the willingness to respect the positions of those with whom we may not always agree.
As such, in the context of our current political climate, we might take time on a chilly Monday in January to consider words spoken nearly 50 years ago on a sweltering afternoon in August: "Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."
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