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History of MLK holiday was no vacation
If you’re a proud 20-something college student with little more than a basic knowledge of American history, yesterday’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day across this nation and here at UNT might not come across as a particularly historic achievement.
In fact, if you only recently graduated from high school, it’s a fair bet that you’ve been familiar with the holiday since kindergarten.
Texas public schools may not be the best in the nation, but we really hope that during that time period, at least one of your teachers filled you in on the historical impact and continuing importance of Rev. King’s legacy, and why the holiday should mean more to you than simply a day off from school.
What they probably didn’t tell you is that the adoption of MLK Day as a federal holiday wasn’t a quick decision—in fact, it required more than 15 years of legislation, petitions, and controversy after King’s assassination in 1968. Even after the holiday was signed into law, some states held out against celebrating the life of the civil rights icon any way they could.
By the time Congress held a vote on the issue, six million signatures had been collected in support.
To put this number in perspective, if last year’s petition supporting the secession of Texas from the rest of the country had pulled numbers like that, the dollars in your wallet might have Rick Perry’s face on them right about now.
Even as President Ronald Reagan prepared to sign a bill creating the federal holiday in 1983, several members of the senate challenged the decision by questioning King’s character—some claiming that his opposition to the Vietnam War made him a communist revolutionary, or worse.
When Republican Evan Mecham became the governor of Arizona in 1987, he actively opposed the observance of the holiday in his state, claiming that while King “did a lot” for black Americans, he still didn’t deserve a national holiday.
The people of the state finally voted to observe the holiday in 1992.
Ever heard of Lee–Jackson–King Day? We hadn’t either, but Virginia knew all about it until 2000, when it finally decided to stop celebrating the birthdays of two slave-owning Confederate generals on the same day they commemorated the life of the greatest figure in the civil rights movement. Similarly, South Carolina waited until 2000 to officially recognize the holiday.
We’re telling you all of this for a reason. It’s not to demonize specific states or politicians for being “backwards” or racially insensitive, but instead to demonstrate that King’s legacy was not easily achieved, even after his death.
Although King’s influence in the civil rights movement emphasized non-violence, this should not be read to imply that every victory these activists achieved was anything but the result of a hard-fought battle against entrenched animosity and a system steeped in prejudice from beginning to end.
Yesterday’s holiday should stand as a continuing reminder of the progress black Americans have influenced and shaped throughout the history of this country—and for that reason, we hope that you’ll appreciate the third Monday in January as more than just another day off from now on.