Why We Have a Holiday Today

On April 4, 1968, I was in a barbershop late in the day. My father took
me for a haircut and while I was waiting, a bulletin came in on the news to

explain that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. I was only 14

years old. What I remember the most was that my dad said “why can’t

people just vote against someone? Why do they have to kill anyone?” That

is a good question even today.

When I later visited the tombstone of Dr. King it was a very solemn

experience for me. To think for a minute about the causes that he stood for,

and how much courage he had, especially to stand up for people who could

not defend themselves, is amazing.

Not everyone was so excited. I taught Management at the University

of Dallas for 19 years before my stroke hit me. It was only two years ago

that the school decided to observe the holiday.

It is also true that President Ronald Reagan was opposed to the

holiday, claiming that if we have any more, why do people need to go to

work? On the floor of the U.S. Senate, without evidence, Jesse Helms

claimed that King was a communist supporter. When asked, Reagan said

“we will know in about 35 years won’t we,” talking about when the

ceremonial capsule would be unsealed. However, under pressure, Reagan

capitulated in the final months of 1983. He sat on the White House lawn and

signed a bill establishing a federal holiday for a man he had spent the

previous two decades opposing. What did they do? They sang “We Shall

Overcome,” which was very appropriate for the occasion.

It is impossible to cover everything he did, and what he was, in this

space. Dr. King was known as an activist and minister who promoted and

organized nonviolent protests. He played a pivotal role in advancing civil

rights in America. Dr. King won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to fight

racial inequality in a non-violent matter.

While he is most famous for his “I Have a Dream” speech, it was the
letter from the Birmingham Jail that is more memorable. If you have never

read it, you can find it in many different sources. The letter demonstrates

his command of figurative language. He used a strong call to action tone

both in writing and speaking. You cannot ignore how he turned the

non-violent protests around in America and showed people how to lead in a

different, but stronger way. Unfortunately, some supporters did exactly

what King did not want to do, by resorting to violence in streets.

In “The March on Washington” in 1963, Dr. King helped lead over

200,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the Washington

Monument. The King march was organized by him and groups of civil rights,

labor, and religious organizations. The purpose was to gain civil and

economic equality for African-Americans (then, called Negros). It was the

strongest call ever to put an end to racism. His march was crucial in helping

to pass the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race,

color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Dr. King also was famous for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and
Birmingham Campaign. As a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership

Conference, he brought many new ideas for which had never been publicly

expressed. He was also the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

History tells us that the assassin of Dr. King in Memphis was James

Earl Ray. You can see the photos taken on the balcony when King was shot.

Among them is the Reverend Jesse Jackson and others who pointed up to

that floor of the motel. Yet before his death, the family claimed otherwise.

They said that James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King. “It pains my

heart,” said Bernice King, “that James Earl Ray had to spend his life in prison

paying for things he didn’t do.” Until her own death in 2006, Coretta Scott

King, was very clear that she believed that a conspiracy led to the

assassination. Her family filed a civil suit in 1999 to turn more information

publicly, and a jury ruled that the local, state, and federal governments were

liable for King’s death.

The low point in his career was plagiarism. While working on his

dissertation for his doctorate at Boston University, he heavily relied on

another author who had done research on the topic. An academic

committee later found that over half of King’s work was plagiarized yet

would not revoke his doctorate. Since he was dead by that time, a review

panel said the action would serve no purpose. The committee found that the

dissertation still “makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship.”

In the week when I wrote this blog, a group of men at BIND (Brain

Injury Network of Dallas) discussed the topic about “how the world would be

different if they were never born.” The idea came from the story about

George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We can see that there is

no question about how the world would be different without Dr. King. My

view is that the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would have been

extremely slow. The leadership of the non-violent movement would have

been in shambles. We would not have experienced his oratory, which was

best anyone would have wanted. His murder was senseless. But, like

martyrs before and after him, the contributions are timeless.

That is why we honor him today with this holiday.

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