By MARSHA MERCER
The federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. blends
celebration, reflection and action.
On the third Monday in January, typically there are
parades, prayer breakfasts, church services, concerts, readings from the
writings of the slain civil rights leader and, yes, sales. Shopping, though, is
far less a focus than on other federal holidays.
The King holiday is our national day of service, when Americans
are encouraged to volunteer to make their communities better.
King would have turned 93 on Jan. 15. He received the
Nobel Peace Prize at 35 and was only 39 when he was tragically killed by a
sniper in 1968.
Time dims memories, so it’s worth remembering the
holiday honoring him was hard won. Black members of Congress had to fight for
15 years to get the holiday through Congress.
Sen. Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, once filibustered
the bill with 300 pages of documents accusing King of being a Marxist with
communist leanings. Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy or Massachusetts and Daniel
Patrick Moynihan of New York declared the papers “filth.”
Congress finally passed and President Ronald Reagan
signed the law creating the King holiday in 1983, with the first observance in
1986. But some states resisted. Arizona did not recognize the holiday until
1992 and New Hampshire in 1999.
Until last year, Virginia still honored Confederate
Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with a state holiday on the Friday
before the King holiday.
Shortly after the first MLK federal holiday, The New
York Times published a letter from a Princeton University sociology professor.
“I propose we declare the holiday a `day on,’ rather
than a `day off,’” Marion J. Levy Jr. wrote. His idea was that everyone would
work on the holiday and those above the poverty line would send their wages to
a special MLK fund benefiting education, housing and other projects.
Persuading millions of Americans to work on a holiday
and donate their pay was a bridge too far, but the idea of service caught on.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the King
Holiday and Service Act, officially designating the holiday as a day of
Overshadowing the commemorations this year is the
political battle over voting rights legislation.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris paid
tribute to King and met with his family Tuesday in Atlanta before the president
delivered a fiery speech evoking King’s memory to press for passage of voting
Voting rights used to be a bipartisan issue but, like
most things, it has become fiercely politicized. Partisans can’t even agree on
Biden and many Democrats contend passing the two
voting rights bills before Congress is so crucial to restoring equity in the
election system that the Senate should set aside the filibuster rule, which
requires 60 votes, if necessary.
But Republicans vociferously claim the voting rights bills
are a massive power grab by Democrats, an attempt to rewrite the nation’s
election laws to benefit Democratic candidates.
Biden hopes to make where legislators stand a key
marker in this year’s midterm elections.
As senators wrestle with their role in history, the
rest of us can find meaningful ways to observe the holiday.
You can Google local MLK service events. If wintry
weather or the pandemic makes in-person volunteering problematic, the federal
government has two service opportunities people can do at home.
Both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian
Institution are seeking volunteers to transcribe historical documents virtually.
Digital volunteers are helping to make letters, field notes, diaries,
manuscripts and other handwritten documents more widely available.
For example, the Smithsonian needs help transcribingrecords from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was formed to improve the lives of
formerly enslaved men and women during Reconstruction.
The Library of Congress needs help transcribing pages
from George Washington’s farm reports that chronicle the lives and labor of
enslaved people at Mount Vernon as well as other aspects of 18th
century farm life.
The library also has projects transcribing Walt Whitman’s letters and Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architecture files.
This MLK holiday is a chance to learn while we serve.
“Everybody can be great,” King said, “because anybody
©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.