I’m chagrined that I didn’t write a column last week sharing thoughts about Civil Rights and the pivotal role of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. I’m embarrassed to say that I almost let the important day designated to honor Dr. King go by unnoticed.
Thankfully, it is now a national holiday so I was reminded by announcements of numerous commemorative events around the United States, as well as thoughtful (albeit after deadline) submissions to the Cook County News- Herald from our legislative representatives.
My co-workers remembered and we had a discussion over whether or not the News-Herald office should be open or not. The decision to work or not to work was left up to each individual staffer. I didn’t take the day off. Not because I don’t have the utmost respect for Dr. King, but because I actually think one of the best ways to honor Dr. King is by working.
The best and highest way to remember Dr. King is probably by spending the day in some sort of volunteer activity, doing something that builds community. In fact, that is what some of the original organizers of Martin Luther King Day wanted the commemoration to be—a day of service. The holiday was designated and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act, expanding the mission of the holiday as “a day of community service, interracial cooperation and youth anti-violence initiatives.”
Since then, every year meaningful tasks are undertaken to remember the work of Dr. King. All over the United States, there are youth expos and anti-bullying events. There are unity marches and symposiums on nonviolence. Volunteers offer hours of service, picking up trash on roadsides, helping repair homes for low income seniors, collecting donations for food shelves, giving blood, serving at soup kitchens and much more.
Our leaders set the example. President Clinton followed up the signing of the service act with the creation of AmeriCorps in 1994. President George W. Bush spent Martin Luther King holidays lending a hand in rebuilding efforts in Hurricane Katrina-torn New Orleans or visiting schools. This year President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama spent time with kids completing a literacy project at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington. In years past, they’ve served meals at homeless shelters.
All of these are great ways to remember the slain Civil Rights leader. Another way, I learned this week, is to go to school.
I had a nice visit with a local school board member about Martin Luther King Day. I asked if the school had gotten any feedback from people upset because the school does not follow the federal and state holiday policy. Yes, she said, they had heard a few complaints. But not as much in years past as the school has made an effort to let parents and the community know that while school is held, Dr. King’s memory is still honored.
When school is held on the third Monday of the month, the day federally designated as Martin Luther King Day, schools are required to incorporate the story of Dr. King. From kindergarten through high school, on that day or leading up to that day, during history lessons or social studies or English classes, the story of the Civil Rights struggle is woven into the curriculum.
Through age-appropriate lessons, students learn about segregation and desegregation; about voting rights and the Nobel Peace Prize; about bus boycotts and sit-ins and sadly, about the assassination of a great man. Students hear his words of wisdom, such as the famed I Have a Dream speech.
I’m glad the school honors the special holiday. I’m pleased that our school works to bring Dr. King’s legacy to life. And I’m glad that they reminded me to do the same.
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?
Martin Luther King, Jr.