It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. So what are you doing at work? Today America celebrates the legacy of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pioneer of nonviolent social change and advocate for racial equality.
Or does it?
While many Americans are enjoying a day off from work observing and celebrating this day of remembrance in honor of Dr. King., just as many are on the clock today, with their employers ignoring the holiday and continuing with business as usual. For some African Americans, particularly those at work today, this is viewed as a huge slap in the face and a sign that not much has changed in America. Is it true that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not truly recognized as a full-fledged holiday, or are we just overreacting?
The federal holiday (officially known as Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.) is observed each year on the third Monday in January, which falls near the time of Dr. King’s actual birthday, January 15. Many began calling for a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King shortly after he was assassinated in 1968, but the holiday was not official until 1983 when it was signed into law by then President Ronald Reagan. Still, it was not officially observed until January 20, 1986. Even then, several states refused to observe the holiday, with Arizona perhaps being the most famously obstinate in their objection. Even some states that did not outright reject the holiday still found ways to marginalize or compromise it by naming it differently or combining it with other historical observances. I recall living in Alabama in the late 90s when the holiday was called Lee Jackson King Day, combining the memory of the civil rights leader with that of Confederate Army generals, adding insult to injury for many. It was not until 2000 that the holiday was officially observed by all 50 states when South Carolina, the last holdout, finally made it an official state holiday.
The reason for the third Monday observance is that the holiday is covered under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The act itself, ironically signed into law in 1968, predates the MLK holiday, but the observance was grandfathered in once it became official. The act initially changed Washington’s Birthday (February 22), Memorial Day (May 30), Columbus Day (October 12) and Veterans Day (November 11) from their actual dates to designated Mondays. Why? I’m glad you asked. The Act was created for the sole purpose of increasing the number of three-day weekends for federal employees. Despite the Act being intended for federal employees, many other employers have since adopted the holiday schedule, giving workers a benefit to increase morale and reflect patriotism.
Still, as of 2007, only 33% of employers ceased operation or limited operation to essential personnel for the holiday. This fact is more daunting when one considers that the holiday was initially proposed by labor unions as a part of contract negotiations. This was a lightning rod for many Blacks at the time, with some initial proposals calling for the holiday to be observed in alignment with the date of Dr. King’s assassination, April 4, 1968, instead of his birthday. The thinking behind this was that the injustice was one that this nation should never forget.
Yet today, many employers continued with business as usual. African Americans have long called for protests of the ignoring of the holiday by employers, but in recent years those have died down as well. Some accept the snub, pointing to the fact that many jobs are open for business on the other Monday holidays as well, though arguably not as many as on MLK day. Others simply take vacation or call in sick, a mild gesture to assert their defiance of the powers that be.
Regardless of the manner in which the day is observed, America must not ever forget the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who did more than just have a dream and give a speech. He fought for equality and died for the freedom of dignity of Blacks in America.
That sacrifice, in my book, is worthy of a day of reflection and gratitude observed by everyone in America.
Brian C. Scott