ATLANTA — The federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. has taken on added meaning for most Americans this year, as they try to make sense of the violence in Arizona that left six people dead and a member of Congress fighting for her life.
A state that once resisted the notion of a federal King holiday – and last year was the setting for a sharp-tongued debate on immigration – now finds itself in search of solace after the Jan. 8 attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the throng of people around her outside a grocery store in Tucson. The balm of choice is King, a pacifist Southern preacher whose own life was cut short by gun violence.
“Dr. King’s message was about inclusion and the recognition of human dignity, of human rights and making sure that all of our voices are heard,” said Imani Perry, an African-American studies professor at Princeton University. “I hope people in Arizona, in particular, embrace that part of his message. The politics in Arizona recently have often seemed to revolve around excluding people.”
Monday marks the 25th federal observance of the birth of King, whose words were often met with hate and resistance during one of the nation’s most turbulent and transformative eras. Today, King is one of the country’s most celebrated citizens and the only one to be honored with a national holiday who did not serve as a U.S. president.
“So little of his real politics show up in these annual commemorations,” said Morgan State University professor Jared Ball. “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.”
Many use the King holiday to celebrate King’s life and struggle for human rights. Some choose to honor King by following the Baptist preacher’s example of service to their fellow man. For others, the holiday is equal to Presidents’ or Columbus Day: Just an excuse for a long weekend, to take a short vacation or do nothing.
Martin Luther King III, head of The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, said the Arizona tragedy is a grim reminder that the country has not yet achieved his father’s dream of a peaceful society.
“When incidents occur like what we saw in Arizona, it shows us how much work we must do to create the kind of nation where nonviolence is embraced,” King said.
A national remembrance of the civil rights icon is an opportunity for the country to renew its commitment to King’s cause. Absent that, it’s unclear how his legacy would be remembered, said Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley.
“The holiday brought the freedom struggle into the main narrative,” Brinkley said. “The day is meant to be a moment of reflection against racism, poverty and war. It’s not just an African-American holiday. The idea of that day is to try to understand the experience of people who had to overcome racism but in the end are part and parcel of the American quilt.”
An AP-GfK poll shows that Barack Obama‘s term as the nation’s first black president has not shifted views on the nation’s progress toward King’s dream of racial equality. According to the poll, 77 percent feel there has been significant progress toward King’s dream – about the same percentage as found by a 2006 AP-Ipsos poll (75 percent).
Overall, 30 percent interviewed for the AP-GfK poll say they will do something to commemorate the King holiday this year, up from 23 percent in 2006. About three in four respondents said King is deserving of a national holiday.
King, who was born Jan. 15, 1929, was killed at age 39. He has now been dead longer than he lived, and each commemoration adds more distance between his generation and those who came after and directly benefited from his life’s work.
“The struggle that the holiday itself has is to not just be a day off,” Brinkley said. “We have trouble with that. We have to constantly be vigilant not to let that happen.”
Legislation calling for a federal King holiday was introduced in Congress by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan just four days after King’s April 4, 1968, assassination. Later that same year, Coretta Scott King, his widow, started The Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in the basement of the couple’s Atlanta home.
She was also committed early on to Conyers’ proposal – an ironic tribute to a man who usually didn’t make much of his birthday. It would be another 15 years before Congress warmed to the idea and passed it into law.
President Ronald Reagan signed the bill establishing the third Monday in January as the Martin Luther King National Holiday on Nov. 3, 1983, and the first observance was Jan. 20, 1986. That year, 17 states also had official King holidays, including Illinois, which recognized King with a holiday in 1973, the first state to do so.
Arizona established, then rescinded, a King holiday in the 1980s, but finally joined the federal observance in 1992. New Hampshire was the last state to honor King, in 1999.
Today, the King holiday also is observed in more than 100 countries, according to The King Center.
In 1994, the meaning of the holiday shifted as Coretta Scott King called for less of an emphasis on his life and more of a focus on his legacy. The mission was expanded to include volunteerism, interracial cooperation and youth anti-violence initiatives.
More than a million Americans are expected to participate in 13,000 projects around the country on the King Day of Service, said Patrick Corvington, head of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency charged with administering service projects on the King holiday. The focus on service makes the holiday more inclusive, Corvington said.
Corporate America has been slower to respond. A survey of 300 businesses by the Bureau of National Affairs showed three in 10 will give all or most of their workers a paid holiday on Monday. The legal and business publisher reports the figure is a significant increase over the first 11 years of the federal holiday observance.
According to the BNA survey, only 14 percent of surveyed businesses made the King Day a paid holiday in 1986, and figures stayed in the teens until a 1993, when the number rose to 24 percent. Since 2003, the number has hovered around 30 percent of employers.