What that means is that, except for Columbus Day (the Monday nearest October 12th, which is, in fact, not too widely celebrated except by banks, some government offices and the Postal Service) none of the major national holidays are in honor of a person. Instead, they honor ideas. We celebrate the coming of the New Year (the future), the Presidency, those killed during wars, our national independence, working men and women (Labor Day), our veterans, thanks and remembrance (Thanksgiving) and, of course, the Christian holiday of Christmas.
Now I’m not going to quibble about Thanksgiving and Christmas, although I think the separation of Church and State is not fully honored by having these as Federal holidays, nor am I going to get into the arguments over Columbus Day, although Chris was NOT, in fact, the first European to arrive in the “New World,” and some of the descendants of those who were here before he came tend to view this “celebration” with a degree of hostility which is not without cause.
On the other hand, celebrating our independence (founding) as a nation, or honoring workers, veterans, war dead, or the institution of our presidency isn’t the same as honoring a specific person. These days honor ideas or classes of people and I believe them to be of national significance. But, for all of the contributions which the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made to our nation, his work towards trying to establish and guarantee the civil rights of ALL citizens, was not done in a vacuum. Nor was he, personally, or solely, responsible for the progress which has been made in this arena.
I’m old enough to remember watching the news coverage of the struggles to establish voting rights for all, to eliminate segregation on the basis of skin color, etc. It’s true that I was not a direct participant in those struggles in the sense of my having been a Freedom Rider or one of the marchers at Selma, but these were events which I observed (at least in the news) and supported (at least emotionally). I’m well aware of the many people and groups who were a part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s (SNCC, CORE, NAACP, etc., etc., etc.). These groups tended to focus, almost exclusively, on the rights of Americans of African ancestry.
I’m also aware of the fact that we, as a nation, still have a long way to go to meet the challenge of our ideals and that there is still a great deal of work to be done before we can truly claim to be “the land of the free,” for there are still many groups which are subject to harassment, limitations and even danger simply because they would like to be treated as full-fledged citizens of our country due to factors of race, religion, sexual orientation, or other causes. “Equal justice for all” is still more of a dream, than a reality.
So, what does this have to do with the MLK holiday? Simply that it bothers me that we have chosen to single out one individual who was involved with a part of this on-going struggle as worthy of a national day of recognition at the expense of two Presidents of some importance. Now, I do think that it’s not a bad thing to honor the idea of the Presidency. I do believe that the office is more important than the person. But, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use a day (I have no problem with the selection of MLK’s birthday as the choice of day) to celebrate the IDEA of Civil Rights, especially when there are, essentially, no other national holidays to celebrate a person?
I really don’t want to get too far into the controversies over Columbus Day, but I have never understood his connection to the US, except that he was, apparently, the first European recognized as having made landfall on this side of the Atlantic. This was, in fact, actually after the Vikings who, apparently, had actually settled on land which would eventually become part of the United States and had, apparently, engaged in actual exploration and established settlements, which would seem to give them a better “claim” to land which was already occupied. That, of course, would seem to make the whole question of the legitimacy of European “claims” to the Western Hemisphere somewhat questionable, except as an occupying force, but history is as it is…
I’m not convinced that King (if he had lived longer) would have been comfortable with the idea that he should have been singled out as the ONE advocate for civil rights worthy of celebration and recognition. I think he was aware of the fact that he had a LOT of help and assistance from many people, Black and White, Male and Female, and that the success of the movement with which he is credited as leading would have been much less successful without their participation. After all, the two portions of the “March on Washington” which I remember most clearly (and I suspect the same is true of most people who remember that day) were, of course, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Peter, Paul and Mary’s singing of “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that my ideas are likely to lead to any sort of change in the designation of this holiday, but, all things considered, I do think that changing the “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” holiday to “Civil Rights Day” would better honor the legacy of King, and that of the many others, who have, and continue to, work towards making this a nation where the words “equal justice for all” are truly celebrated in action, not just in words, but I know that, for me, I choose to celebrate the fact that We, the People of the United States, enjoy greater civil liberties than many other people and that that is something worth celebrating. It’s just a thought….