It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day across the United States. Mostly, all public offices and schools are closed. Some choose to celebrate the legacy of MLK by providing community service to those in greater need. Others offer or participate in programs to rekindle and light flames in support of the principles of “I Have a Dream.” Our learners in school spend time before and after today watching primary source video of speeches and footage of the civil rights movement. They write about their own hopes and dreams. Some engage in discussions or debate about social justice and how far the civil rights movement has taken the United States – or not.
Ceremonial remembrance days have always been important to tribes and communities since humans first gathered in caves, around campfires, and at watering holes. Ceremonies transmit important oral histories through story, dance, drama, art. They bring humans together to say what happened is so important that we do not want our people to forget.
As tribes evolved to communities and communities to city-states and city-states to nations, ceremonial remembrance days became politically codified as holidays of significance, perhaps as religious holy days, historical events, or celebrations of seasonal significance and importance. And we see tangible changes as a result.
Martin Luther Ling Day in the United States is such a day. The Third Monday of every January. A remembrance of his birthday on January 15.
A belief that his voice was so important in advancing Jefferson’s second sentence of America’s Declaration of Independence to encompass all Americans, what some call the “best known sentence in the English language”, that he deserved a day of remembrance for his life, not his death:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We aren’t there, yet. We still fight over what equality means and who deserves access to it. We still have children without access to basics that we should take for granted in a nation of great wealth – shoes and coats, running water, medical services, food. We have elderly citizens who live without the medicine they need, reasonable access to heat in the winter and cooling in the summer, and a decent hot meal at least once daily. We have handicapped community members, physically and mentally, who wander our streets, facing third not first world problems in their daily lives.
Dr. King and many Americans who stood beside him and behind him advanced the Declaration of Independence’s second sentence. But the issues that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not end when the Act was passed or King died. We still have solutions to be found on many fronts. We still don’t have a national unity of purpose or belief as to for whom the Declaration was intended.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Are we better today than when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address on those still bloodied fields of Pennsylvania?
“ … It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Have we advanced who we are as a nation since we raised the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island and Emma Lazarus wrote the iconic poem that defines America?
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
Yet, as with all grand challenges, we are not there yet. We have work still to do that represents the best of who we are on those remembrance days in which we commemorate the Declaration, our wars on behalf of the world and us, and the lives of Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and King. We still have children to serve, senior citizens to care for, immigrants to welcome, poor to raise up, and a people to unite.