Monday, January 17, 2011
More than our other legal holidays, this one challenges us. It was a challenge to establish the holiday. Holiday in place, this day now reminds us of a more fundamental challenge: Are we who we say we are? The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a national mirror. In its reflection we see a vision of ourselves that dares us to recognize our failings and still strive to live up to our ideals; a vision brought into sharper relief this year by the proximity of the tragedy in Tucson and our responses to it.
third Monday in January is the federal holiday honoring the life and achievements of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The tumultuous story of its establishment begins only four days after Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 and continues for 15 years at the federal level, even longer in some states, to culminate on November 2, 1983 with the adoption of a new legal holiday to be observed beginning in 1986. In that approval process, we see America in its full humanity, struggling with its failings, but ultimately transcendent.
Fortunately for a post on “legal” holidays, Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech begins with very legalistic metaphors: the ideals of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence are a promissory note issued to the people of our country, yet payments on that note to people of color are being returned for insufficient funds. Dr. King, however, refuses to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt, and without asking for or accepting excuses, demands an appropriate cure; he calls on our nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
We have made progress toward Dr. King’s dream; the first non-white male President of the United States is one clear indication. I see another indicator in my family. As a high school freshman, I was bused under court order to integrate a traditionally black inner-city school in Virginia to overcome decades of Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate-but-equal failings. Today, my daughter attends an inner-city, racially-diverse high school in Denver by choice. Yet, lingering achievement gaps among racial and economic groups in Colorado’s schools are but one set of reminders of the work we have yet to do.
Striving is central to the content of the American character. I am reminded of the remarks of one of Dr. King’s predecessors in the civil rights movement concerning an even earlier figure in America’s struggles to live out its creed. From W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, writing about President Abraham Lincoln: “I love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not and yet triumphed.”