Contemplating King’s Legacy

Daniel Thomas Cook

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Unlike every other American holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has ideas of peace and social justice at its core. Most civic holidays in the United States – like Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day – remember wars and the war dead. 

How does one celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? How does one enact or symbolize peace and social justice? No national ritual has arisen.

Labor Day’s original purpose and meaning largely has been forgotten amid back-to-school sales and the smell of charred meat wafting from backyard grills. Thanksgiving invokes a nice sentiment, but its meaning is forever enmeshed with the European colonization of the New World and the plight of Native Americans. And inevitably, the spirit of Christmas that many strain to recover each year becomes buried under materialism.

But how does one celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? How does one enact or symbolize peace and social justice? No national ritual has arisen. There are parades, school-based discussions and activities, screenings of films and speeches and numerous church ceremonies. And volunteer community service has arisen recently as an increasingly popular way to acknowledge Dr. King and his legacy. 

These activities, it must be admitted, occur mainly among African Americans and often in minority neighborhoods and institutions. The fact is that the day is a floating” or discretionary holiday at most workplaces. Business goes on as usual for most people.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, to be sure, does not lend itself to being celebrated like other holidays – nor should it. There are thankfully few, if any, sales in stores. You will not find a MLK Day section at your local/​national/​global chain store. There are no Letter-from-the-Birmingham-Jail party baskets; no matching March-on-Selma paper plates and napkins; no plastic James Meredith/​Emmitt Till platters on which to serve potato chips. You will not find these in the seasonal” aisle next to the Valentine’s Day merchandise. Nor will you find motion-sensitive Rev. King dolls that break into I Have a Dream” when one passes within a few feet.

You will not find these because the events that make up King’s legacy and that of the Civil Rights Movement are not readily commercialized. They do not evoke the warm fuzzy associations necessary for brand identification. It is difficult to imagine a stencil in one’s living room window of the Edmund Pettis bridge depicting civil rights marchers confronting the Alabama State police – with their attack dogs and fire hoses – as something to be displayed for a holiday.” Nor is the image of a brave activist being dragged by his hair from a Whites Only lunch counter by a local constable something to memorialize in the same manner as a Nativity scene.

Yet, these events and images provide the foundation of a movement that now annually remembers and renews itself on this national holiday. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Americans are forced to confront – however briefly on our television screens, in black-and-white footage – the faces and voices of conviction in something that has yet to be realized. We are forced to face the historical record of those who demanded the most basic forms of justice and were beaten with the batons of injustice. We are forced to look into the eyes of a man of peace who was shot dead in his tracks.

On this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we stand in witness to historical change, to the fulfillment of collective sacrifice and of an inspired dream. On this, the eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama, we also are presented with opportunity. We have the opportunity to recognize and proclaim that violence did not prevail, that voices were not silenced and that cynicism can be defeated with hope and action. On this day, we are given the opportunity to hear these voices anew – voices that continue to speak every day in multiple ways, should we attune our ears to their message.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a day for contemplation. It is a time for renewal and an opportunity to take action. Its celebration is open-ended. May you find ways to make this day memorable and meaningful.

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Daniel Thomas Cook, Associate Professor of Childhood Studies and Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, writes on consumer society.
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