TU, and most of America, treated MLK day as part of an extended weekend instead of reflecting on America’s racist history or helping their communities.
There are few people in American history more deserving of a national holiday than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Through his resounding message of nonviolence and unity, Dr. King became the face of the civil rights movement and helped lay the social and political groundwork for the country to move past the deeply embedded racism of its past. Though race relations are tense in 2018 and we have a long way to go toward perfection, we see the lasting influence of Dr. King’s life (and the lives of other civil rights leaders) every day in figures like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey or Ben Carson, or in the rising numbers of black students attending universities, or in modern groups of reformers who continue to push for justice for all. So why don’t we have a holiday for him?
“Hold on,” you’re saying, “we already do. Everyone knows MLK day is the third Monday of January, we get school off and everything!” I should clarify. By holiday, I don’t mean a day that people use as an excuse to sleep in or party on a Sunday. I mean one where people take the time to consider and honor the meaning of King’s work.
In fairness, I suppose “honoring” something can be a pretty nebulous concept. Who am I to say that Americans everywhere, even the ones treating the holiday entirely as a day of leisure, aren’t taking time out of their day to pray or even just reflect on the civil rights advances achieved since the ‘60s? And even if they choose not to, far be it from me to propose some sort of fascism of thought, where I would have everyone compelled to feel a particular way about something. It’s just that there seems to be a distinctly casual feel about this holiday where too many people disregard what it is supposed to represent.
Let’s use a local example and take a look at what was going on at TU on January 15. Despite not having classes, I and many other students managed to get up early and volunteer our time. But were we going to help at a homeless shelter or food kitchen, or march in the parade downtown? No, we were University Ambassadors who spent the day giving tours and showing off the campus to high school juniors. There was nary a mention of Dr. King throughout the whole operation. It’s not like TU did nothing for MLK Day; they provided a shuttle to the parade and a community service event with President Clancy in attendance. But the point remains that the school’s primary directive that day was promoting itself instead of observing the holiday, something they would never do on a more established and respected holiday like the Fourth of July.
Let me be clear, this is not meant as an attack on the UA organization, which works a vital job in marketing our school to the best and brightest and has to find days that work to host hundreds of prospective students when it can. Nor is it a criticism of the University of Tulsa, which wasn’t doing anything different than most other schools or organizations. I’m merely pointing out the general malaise towards this would-be special day that exists in today’s culture.
Is there anything we can do to change this sort of lax attitude and perhaps give MLK, both the day and the man, more of the respect they deserve? You can never change a person’s intentions or make observances mandatory, but I suspect there are small steps that different institutions could take to incrementally increase awareness.
According to one recent survey, the number of employers who give the day off hovers around 40 percent, high amongst other “secondary holidays” (Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, Presidents’ Day), but far short of the numbers for the likes of Christmas or New Year’s. If more industries and organizations acknowledge that honoring an American hero is more important than watching an ugly disco ball drop in Times Square, maybe we could get somewhere.
As for schools, I would like to see more of them not giving the day off. Instead of MLK Day serving as a means to get in a few extra rounds of “Overwatch,” have the day in class be devoted to activities and service in the spirit of the civil rights movement.
Finally, any states that insist on conflating MLK Day with the birthday of Robert E. Lee — looking at you Alabama and Mississippi — should be openly shamed until they change such a deplorable policy. Treating Lee as a cultural icon is indeed a more nuanced take than assuming that the man was a virulent racist, but it is still deeply disrespectful to honor a man who fought for the right to keep black people enslaved on the same day as the man who made it his life’s work to rid the country of the last vestiges of that terrible bondage.