MLK Day turns 30: Why we observe it


— This Monday, we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the federal holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s a holiday that thankfully has been gaining in recognition since Congress passed a bill and President Ronald Reagan signed it in 1983, designating the third Monday in January, starting in 1986, to honor the civil rights leader. For years, some states declined to participate in the holiday, and Arizona lost the opportunity to host a Super Bowl over it. In 2000, South Carolina became the last state to recognize the holiday.

Still, a Bloomberg BNA survey found last year that fewer than 40% of American workers are given the day off — about the same as Presidents Day and far behind the nearly universal observance of such holidays as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day.

Whether or not you have the day off, it’s worth reflecting on the life and philosophy of the man we honor Monday.

Had an assassin’s bullet not taken his life at the age of 39, King would have turned 87 on Friday.

Had he lived, I believe King would have continued to inspire hope and would challenge us to fulfill his dream of a more inclusive society — where everyone would have an equal opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

No doubt King, who was passionate about justice and equality for all, would have been proud of all the milestones we have achieved as a nation, including the election of our first black president of the United States. Nevertheless, King would have urged us to move beyond our internal divisions of political partisanship and to find common ground.

King believed that “hate is too great a burden to bear” and that we should not “seek to satisfy our thirst of freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Where we are

So, where are we on race relations? Is it OK to even talk about it? Some say “color blindness” means that even mentioning race is wrong — even when pointing out an injustice.

As we have seen over the last few years, the country has stumbled backward.

Not only are we reopening old wounds with regard to confrontation with law enforcement, we are also relitigating everything from voting rights to affirmative action. And now we confront, for the second year in a row, Hollywood — which somehow ignores the talent of people of color when it comes to the Oscars. (#Oscars so white)

With the headlines screaming about everything from black young men being gunned down by police in Chicago to mass incarceration, and with officials ignoring calls for reconciliation — or worse, blaming poor people for their own predicament — it’s easy to become depressed, apathetic or simply give up.

But that is not King’s legacy. He saw defeats as temporary. He saw opposition as a challenge. He believed that most people want truth and justice, that most people would lend their voices to promote the freedom and dignity of all.

It was his faith, determination and hope, as much as his words, that sustained and inspired a generation to be actively engaged in the political process as voters — and thus working to transform our nation by electing men and women of valor who sought to remove barriers and open once-closed doors to all. That was part of King’s vision — as he stated back in 1957 when he called on the country to “give us the ballot.”

King once said, “If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

We can thank King’s generation and their children for the fact that open racism, based on hatred, is no longer acceptable in America. Malicious racism is largely behind us. Yet, for many blacks and other people of color, our journey is not over as we strive to get to King’s “promised land.”

Little girls attending Sunday school are no longer being bombed, with the perpetrators going unpunished for decades. But we still have too many instances like Sandra Bland being found dead in her jail cell or young men being fatally shot as they walked, unarmed, peacefully away from law enforcement. Justice seems elusive.

The struggle goes on

So how do we honor King when there are those in our society who continue to exploit racial fears and to demonize those from different religious backgrounds or traditions?

No one knew better than King of disappointment, yet he remained determined not to be discouraged. He saw in his own lifetime that racism was shifting from malicious, violent discrimination to softer means such as excluding people from voting, or from access to promotions in the workplace, or from access to certain careers, or from ever being able to rise above hand-to-mouth wages and salaries.

The good news is, despite an onslaught of politicians who have a vested interest in excusing and fostering bias based on racial fears, Pew Research finds that the majority of Americans believe the country needs to continue to take measures to give equal rights to blacks and everyone.

We remain in a struggle to fight racism, a struggle all the tougher because racism has gone underground or hides its true intentions. Some studies refer to it as unconscious bias.

Twenty-first century racism wears many disguises, including stereotyping immigrants as criminals — with only some being “good people.” The new racism holds that those who do the discriminating are actually the victims of discrimination, if a policy seeks to give people of color more access to their “area.”

We must continue to find ways to achieve racial reconciliation through dialogue and by working together to tear down institutional racism that prevents some folks with names like Janae or Jamil from being called in for an interview, though they meet the qualifications.

Finally, King believed in diversity. Diversity, the chorus of different voices, should be a song of harmony. As Americans, we cannot deny our heritage, our individual cultures, but rather we must continue to bring all that is good and just to the civic enterprise. King’s legacy is action in the service of others. For he believed that “not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”

So, whether on the job or off, let’s use this day to commit ourselves to service through acts of goodness and kindness. Let’s continue his work in the vineyards of justice and equality for all. And let us begin to live in what King called “the fierce urgency of now.”

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for civic engagement and voter participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.