MLK Day…What Significance does it hold in 2011 America?

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2011: Nation Ponders King In Wake Of Arizona Shootings


So, this question popped into my head earlier in the day. Then, as the day slowly unraveled, I had time to think about it.  I think my thoughts finally came together in a brief exchange with a colleague of mine, the music teacher, at work this afternoon.

“So, Mr. McGill, what are you doing for MLK day tomorrow?

“Calling off, and relaxing in a state of quiet reflection all day like the rest of the civilized world” was my retort as I heated water in the microwave to have a cup of caffeinated hot chocolate.  I then commented that I was accustomed to living in a place that had this day off.  As we continued to talk, the question kind of twirled around in my head, adding another dimension to my contemplations on the day as a whole.

When I was a tyke, this national holiday was still in its throes of tossing and turning in political circles.  I was too young to know or care at that point I suppose.  My first real remembrance of this holiday, or the countless discussions and debates it easily conjures, oddly enough emanates from the rap group Public Enemy, one of my favorites of all times.  They were angry, because Arizona was fighting tooth and nail not to recognize this holiday .  Public Enemy put out a full on assault, in the form of music, protests, interviews, petitions, etc.  Some of you may even recall that the Super Bowl was not played in Arizona that year due to this topic and Arizona’s resistance.   While I couldn’t fully grasp the ideas and sentiments of the song, its lyrics, the protests and demonstrations,  and the meaning of it all then, it somehow placed a stamp on my psyche that still exists to this day (in many ways, my distaste for Arizona, my love for Public Enemy, and my belief that music and art in general can sometimes be more impactful than speeches ever can be, and taking to the streets is a wonderful and empowering way to make your voice heard).  Oddly enough, many of the same sentiments were espoused by Public Enemy lyricist and figurehead Chuck D in the face of Arizona anti-immigration legislation. (“By The Time I Get To Arizona” ~This Discrimination Must Stop News Editorial (April 26, 2010)

So, this evening, I read the article which starts this post, and one small paragraph in it definitely answered the question which heads this post, at least in my mind.

“So little of his real politics show up in these annual commemorations.”  “Instead of actually reading what he wrote or listening to what he said, we pick catchphrases and throw his name around. We all feel for the tragic incident that took place in Arizona, but this is happening to people all over the world every day in one form or another.” ~ Morgan State University professor Jared Ball

I absolutely agree with the words of Prof. Ball.  I know that this was the truth when I was growing up.  We all hear, and educators often tell, of the same story of MLK. His involvement following the extraordinary act of defiance which Rosa Parks displayed, and his cries for equality for all, culminating in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

But is that it?

Surely if that was, that would be more than enough to place his memory in the annals of American history.  Add to that being not only a recipient, but at the time the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and you’re talking quite a haul for someone who only lived 39 years.  It had never occurred to me, but Dr. King has now been dead longer than he was alive, further removing us from his words, and the times which encapsulate them.

However, if you’re still pondering the question…no, that ain’t it.  I would also argue that by either forgetting, ignoring, or simply not knowing that there’s more to MLK, and his words, we’re not only providing a disservice to ourselves, but to countless students in America’s schools.   Dr. King’s words didn’t begin or end with “I Have a Dream”.

I remember while working at The Dusable Museum Of African American Museum as an interning curator, we did a huge exhibit on MLK.  Part of the exhibit was a video which played all of King’s major speeches, and a few minor ones.  I remember the day we finished expanding and finalizing the exhibit, the staff stood talking for a few minutes, and then MLK’s “I Have Seen The Mountaintop” speech came on.  If you have never heard it, I will post it below.  As we stood there, it was hard to hold back tears.  The most gripping part of the entire speech is easily the last few moments of it.  Given the day before he died, it is easy to see, at least in my opinion, that King knew his time was almost at an end.  Perhaps it was simply the stress of everything swirling around him, including increased threats both from private citizens as well as the government in the form of COINTELPRO  phone calls.  Either way, his words would 24 hours later prove prophetic:

“And they were telling me –. Now, it doesn’t matter, now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Even as I read those words, and watch them come from his lips, tears come to my eyes.  I hear a man trying to soothe the sorrow that he knows is fast approaching.  And as we all stood there, listening to the speeches, I found that “The Dream” speech as it is often called, was my least favorite speech.  Yes, it was historical, and arousing, and thought provoking, and it put a lot of things, and people on the map.  But, compared to his speech on Vietnam (posted below), and his mountaintop speech (I am posting the conclusion below, but you can find the speech in its entirety here online), to me, it’s just ok.  Great by any stretch of the imagination, but “ok” when put side by side with his other works.

So, what about MLK’s thoughts on speaking out against the Vietnam war (some would argue thus signing his own death warrant), or his thoughts on unions?  What about the Poor People’s Campaign?  These issues deal as directly to civil rights and equality as King’s words on racial equality, but they are often ignored.  One of my favorite MLK quotes comes from his sermon on Vietnam:

“A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

So, as this debate continues in the face of the tragedy in Arizona, and the continued struggles to exclude people from the American lexicon, be they immigrant (even naturally born children of immigrant parents), and gays, muslims and still on a daily basis those of various races, colors, and creeds, I think we should take some time to review and reflect on the words of Dr. King, in their entirety. Not only a few choice quotes, but his ideas on war, unions, the poor, and of course our struggles towards equality for all men, without reservations.  Some choose this to be a day of service and some simply try to find a moment to take a breath in the daily grind of another day.

I don’t begin to think, nor do I intend to insinuate that my limited knowledge and experience even allows me to fully understand all of these ideas, or to be able to fully appreciate the breadth of this question.  I just know that tomorrow (today at this point, I’m 90 minutes into authoring this post), my students will get a taste of all these ideas, not just a few quotes, and not just a tired recapitulation of one speech.  They will get a taste of education on a great man, whose ideas and words are way too big for just one day.  Imagine what this world would be like if we actually heeded the man’s words.  Imagine.

Also, in case you haven’t heard, this is the first year that Starbucks will be celebrating MLK Day as a paid holiday for its employees.  This is a huge victory for workers rights, particularly in the long battle for union representation in the Starbucks company.  If you aren’t familiar with the Starbucks Workers Union, get hip to it.  As Martin Luther King Jr. himself said:

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress…The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence Speech Transcription

“I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” Speech Transcription



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