Does MLK Day Have Meaning For All?

Photo by Pixabay

Photo by Pixabay

When kids get off school and government offices are closed for holidays of any kind, I always wonder if anyone thinks about the reason they don't have to go to school or work that day.

Most are thinking of what they'll do on that day off: sleep in, get projects or work done they didn't get to, see friends, shop, etc.

I'm one of those people who thinks I need to make the most of every second I'm here on the planet (I constantly feel I'm running out of time, and that I have to make the most of everything while I am here on earth - but that is another blog post).

So each morning, I try to gather meaning from what I'm going to get out of and put into a day.

Today, I'm assessing what MLK Day means to me.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., like any other leader, is exalted for his virtues and criticized by some for his possible controversies. It took years for the holiday to be recognized (see "The Fight For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day") since some states resisted the idea of a federal holiday for one individual (particularly in the south) and ties to communism were attempted to be brought against King. (I've also read about other claims against King's character, including plagiarism and infidelity - for the purposes of brevity, I won't get into the details on this and the conflicting information, I'm just acknowledging my awareness that such claims exist).

The bill for a federal holiday was signed in 1983 by Ronald Reagan but it wasn't until 2000 that every state in the Union observed MLK day.

King was criticized by black leaders such as Malcom X, who didn't buy into King's "non-violent" methods, which were thought to be ineffective. Certain historians contend it took a combination of King's non-violence AND violent actions by others to bring about change.

There are many complex opinions about a man whose main message was in fact, very simple but also very contentious in its uncomfortable truth in the day. And in this day.

For the majority of us, MLK Day is about seeking positive change and remembering the bravery and right-mindedness of treating people the way we all want to be treated. Fairly.

I love and honor this country - not because it's perfect - not because its history is flawless - because it's not. It's because I cling to the ideals it represents.

Life, and the people and circumstances in it, are complicated that way.

As a white, middle-aged woman who was born during the civil rights movements of the 1960s and was too young to have any idea of what was going on at the time in any capacity as it relates to this subject, I'm STILL greatly affected by the struggles of people in this country, my role in behaving with honor and integrity, and how I can incorporate King's words into my life.

In particular, I really like this quote. I don't know what rock I've been living under, but I'd never seen it before.

This past fall, I was getting a flu shot, and on the wall directly across from me, as I sat in my local Osco pharmacy, was a "Succesories" poster with a quote that I couldn't help but notice - it was changed to be non-gender specific about leadership, but I found it so valuable I Googled it later.

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

That really stuck with me.

On the surface, it seems so simple...of course, we look up to those people who handle the difficulty well, be it in sports, the boardroom, in general disagreements.

But do we DO this? Really?

For black folk (and others who believed in equality and were willing to march and act on it), handling "challenge and controversy" in King's lifetime meant getting blasted with water cannons, beat with nightsticks or threatened with death. For walking over a bridge - peacefully - in protest of unfair treatment. It meant enduring endless harassment and death threats just to go to a better school, or to get a job they were qualified for.

For me personally, it often means dealing with the "little" problems in life - small frustrations with children, finances, or day when nothing goes right. It's also bigger concerns with elderly family members and their care, health issues for my family and the desire to feel a sense of wholeness and ongoing purpose to make an impact in life.

When I think of this quote, it reminds me to think of how I act in every circumstance. What example am I, in my little life, showing others around me? Does my existence inspire others to act in a better fashion, or a worse one?

I tell both my kids, that in some way, shape or form, their words and actions are being noticed. By their teachers, neighbors, clergy, peers, and younger kids in the neighborhood. What do they want other people to notice about them? How do they want to be perceived? Will they represent what is good and right, so that others, consciously or unconsciously, will follow their example?

When my daughter is frustrated or upset, I remind her to "be elegant." By that I mean, act the way she would like to see another person act. Show others that SHE is worthy of respect. See others' perspective, but cling strongly to her own sense of worth.

For me in particular, the last few sentences I wrote are what MLK Day means.

EVERY LIFE is sacred, every life matters. The uncomfortable truth is that not ALL people are treated that way - especially those of certain races and genders.

That's wrong.

It can be argued that violence and in-your-face politics and marches get noticed - they do. But for me in general, the grace and elegance of "rising above" animal instincts is something to strive for in my daily life.

Let me tell you, it's not always easy for a hot-blooded Irish woman to do this.

When I think of MLK Day, I don't know if I'd have the guts to stand up and walk across a bridge and get beaten for it. If I could endure hateful, threatening comments. I'm weak that way. I strongly admire those who did, and still do.

But I CAN embody the principals of being elegant in times of controversy in my own life. Of not backing off where I stand in the belief that all people are created equal. Of dealing with times of difficulty with grace - a lesson I need to hear over and over.

A "yearly reminder" in the form of MLK Day does this for me. It's a day that makes me proud to be an American, where we recall one person who stood against the odds in a unique set of circumstances that not all Americans have faced and inspired many others.

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