It’s time to Break It Down!
This is another holiday week. While many may have moved on, I opted not to. I attended an MLK, Jr. Holiday Observance in a neighboring community. The program included public officials, minsters, choirs, teachers, students, a genuinely engaged crowd, and a personal friend who delivered the public address. It was a day that appropriately memorialized many of the ideals for which Dr. King surrendered his life.
I must note at first blush I was a little surprised that of the hand full of students who were afforded the opportunity to read their essays, none were people of color. As an aside, one of two students unable to attend the event had an Indian (as in India) surname, so perhaps… However, upon further contemplation, I concluded, if King’s aims are ever fully achieved, the deftness of the students’ writing skill and the content of their character should supersede the color of their skin. At any rate, in as much as I didn’t read the essays, I’m going to give the teachers and administrators a pass.
In reflecting on the many works of Dr. Martin Luther King, I decided to revisit a post I wrote and posted Wednesday, January 19, 2011, that examined both the advent of the King Holiday, and at the time, a controversy in local and nearby school systems. It’s been 6 years since that fateful snowstorm, 31 years since the initial observance of the King Holiday, and 34 years since President Reagan signed the MLK, Jr. Holiday bill into law. Now seems an apt time to take a look into the rear view mirror of time.
Monday was the 25th Anniversary of the initial observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday (MLK DAY). After a quarter century of inculcation into the very fabric of our society, it may be largely forgotten that the conceptualization, submission and continual resubmission of the idea, the enactment, and the gradual national observance, was not the product of universal acceptance of a grand and enlightened concept, but rather, was emblematic of the civil rights struggle itself; steeped in controversy, and the eventual victory of a relentless movement to achieve richly deserved, and long overdue social justice.
Several members of Congress, and a number of states, and even a President, using a host of creative means, sought to undermine, outmaneuver, sabotage, subvert, and otherwise derail the efforts of the measure’s proponents. Ultimately, the movement was consolidated, snowballed, and would simply not be denied.
The effort to create a King Holiday was started by U.S. Representative John Conyers, Michigan, shortly after Dr. King’s death, in the spring of 1968. It was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1979, but fell 5 votes short of the number for passage in the Lower Chamber.
High profile opponents to the measure included Senator Jesse Helms, NC, Senator John McCain, AZ, and President Ronald Reagan. Both Senators voted against the bill, and Senator McCain publicly supported Arizona Governor Evan Mecham for his rescission of MLK Day as a State Holiday in Arizona. The campaign however, reached a critical mass in the early 1980’s. Spurred on by Stevie Wonder penning a song in King’s honor called, “Happy Birthday,” a petition drive to support the campaign would attract over 6 million signatures. It has been called the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. History.
Buttressed by what had become a wildly successful public campaign, Congress soon followed suit. The proposal passed in the House by a vote of 338-90, and in the Upper Chamber by a vote of 78-22. Given the dimensions of this overwhelming support, in the form of bicameral veto-proof votes, President Reagan signed the provision November 2, 1983, and it became Federal Law. The first observance under the new law took place January 20, 1986, rather than on January 15th, Dr. King’s birthday. A compromise in the legislation specified that the observance take place on the Third Monday in January, consistent with prior legislation (Uniform Monday Holiday Act).
Of course, that was not the end of the story. It would actually take more than 30 years after Dr. King’s death before the Holiday was fully adopted and observed in all 50 states. Illinois holds the distinction of being the first State to adopt MLK Day as a State Holiday, having done so in 1973. Twenty years later, in 1993, for the first time, some form of MLK Day was held in each of the 50 States. It was not until 2000 that South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges signed a bill to make MLK Day a paid holiday for State employees; giving the Palmetto State the dubious distinction of being the last of the 50 States to do so. However, Mississippi also sets itself apart by designating the Third Monday in January as a shared Holiday that honors the memory of Robert E. Lee and Dr. King…two fine southern gentlemen.
So with that extensive preamble, I give you the issue of the day. This year, the convergence of a series of perfect winter storm systems bludgeoned the South and Eastern United States during the weeks leading up to the King Holiday. Part of the collateral damage emanating from these storms was widespread school closings, especially in the South, including parts of Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
In an effort to reformat the remainder of the school year, while minimizing overall disruption to School Calendars, a number of School Administrators discussed, and/or chose to eliminate the MLK Holiday, and program the day as a school “Make-up Day.” The ensuing conversations, especially those that lead to decisions to cancel the Holiday proved to be controversial and highly charged. It does not help that in many Southern school districts, there has been a level of retrenchment that many parents, families, and human rights organizations believe is tantamount to re-segregating the districts.
So I ask you, “What Would Martin Do?” (WWMD?)
I am not going to indulge in intellectual hubris, and pretend I know the answer to the aforementioned query. Instead, I will apply a couple of basic pragmatic considerations, and share my version of common sense. First, it is no secret; the efficacy of the American Education System is in question. By most accounts, American students, our children, are in trouble. A web search of “Shortcomings of the American Educational System” yields 28, 400,000 results. Do not worry I am not about to recount them for you.
The point is from the White House, to the State House, to the School House, the calls for reforming the American System of Education resound clearly, loudly, and incessantly. Almost every depiction of what is required for America to regain its mojo and reach its potential includes some version of enhancing the level and quality of education that we provide to our students.
In that light, I believe we are missing, not only the larger point, but we are also missing a unique opportunity, if we allow ourselves to get “stuck,” quibbling over the alleged unfairness, inequality, or racial bias of administrators having declared MLK Day a school day. Even “if,” any or all of those notions were accurate, and I am not certain they were, our forbears prided themselves in rising above those challenges, and excelling in spite of them. Given all of our advantages, relative to our ancestors, it is incumbent upon us to do the same…and more!
We should have leveraged the construct of MLK Day as a Day of Service, and enhanced it to make it a Day of Service and Education. There are many studies that suggest the longer students stay away from their regular studies and study habits, the more ground they lose. Has it not occurred to anyone that such a result is the very last thing we, or they, need? It was both important, and apropos to have school on MLK Day because that was the next “First Day Available” to conduct the Make-up Day. By taking advantage of that option, the students, for whom education is designed, and whom should derive the greatest direct benefit, receive the highest and best use from a necessary evil; the inclusion of a Make-up Day. Naturally, all of society reaps the rewards of their immediate increased potential.
Since I am not a medium or a spiritualist, I do not profess to have conducted a séance with Dr. King; nor am I an educator, and I have not polled teachers or administrators. I am just a guy who is a perpetual student…of life, and that is how I see it. So if you were to ask me, “WWMD? (Reprised ’17),” My answer is, in his most Reverend voice, Dr. King would implore us not to get “stuck,” quibbling over the alleged unfairness, inequality, or racial bias of administrators having declared MLK Day a school day. He would add, “I Have A Dream” that one day, down in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina, black boys and black girls will join with white boys and white girls, and with Latino boys and Latina girls, and with Asian boys and Asian girls, and they will all get the quality education that they deserve, irrespective of their color, or their culture, or whether January 17th is a School “Make-up Day.” That was my take then and now. What’s yours?
I’m done; holla back!
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