The third Monday in January seems like any other day on paper, but we in America know that is not the case. Since 1986, we’ve had a federal holiday known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For most, this is a day off of work – but what does a day off truly mean?
As Millenials born into a world where MLK Day was always “a thing,” it’s hard to imagine anything other than a day off today. Growing up, we may have had a special MLK Day program in school, but it was all a watered-down, textbook version of racism, segregation, civil rights, and assassination.
We hear speeches and know the dates, but it’s all disconnected to the past we never knew. As much as we try not to see the world as black and white today, the pages of a textbook keep it so. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march on Washington and was assassinated by a bad man. Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on a bus and now everyone knows her name. What do these events mean in a larger context?
MLK taught peace and civil disobedience through the words of Christianity. As Christians, we often have trouble connecting to stories we read in the Bible. We don’t know anyone who marched around the walls of Jericho. No one alive today saw Jesus crucified and risen indeed. We didn’t know the Pauls, Peters, and Marks of 2,000 years ago who worked to build something bigger for humankind.
In the second half of the first century A.D., it was a crime to worship as a Christian in the Roman Empire. The religion flourished despite the wishes of authorities, and in 301 A.D, Armenia became the first nation to recognize it as an official religion of the state. But, for more than 250 years, a man’s very existence as a Christian was a crime.
Modern day persecution
That same criminal reality was likely felt by black men and women in America from the end of the Civil War in 1865 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 24th Amendment in 1964. Yet, even after the federal government recognized equality, southern states relied on nullification to deny the rights of colored people on busses, in restaurants, at the polls, and in schools.
Four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, but the story doesn’t end there as textbooks would have you believe. Lesser known tales and events add spirit to the fight for both equality and humanity that perhaps you’ve never heard of.
People who participated in the Civil Rights Movement are still alive today. They walk among us just as they did alongside Dr. King 50 years ago. Their belief, their work, and their passion are what keep the movement alive today. We know the story of Dr. Martin Luther King. Now is the time to hear from others who lived persecution without the platform.
- Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961 – Members of the Ku Klux Klan, still wearing church attire from services that morning, firebombed a bus carrying Freedom Riders outside of Anniston, Ala.
- Jan. 10, 1966 – Members of the Ku Klux Klan burned the house of a black man who offered to pay poll taxes in Mississippi. He, his wife, and three children were inside the house when it was attacked. Everyone survived except the man the KKK sought to murder. His tombstone reads, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
These are just two examples, but without remembering the presently unknown men and women who sacrificed in pursuit of equality, we too forget the name of Martin Luther King Jr. As time passes, we grow to accept the simple stories of textbooks rather than face the ugly truth of reality.
Dr. King himself was aware of time’s ability to erode a legacy.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, penned April 16, 1963, he wrote:
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill wll. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
We have taken the time to learn the legacy of Dr. King passively. Although we will not live the same persecution, now is the time to understand it actively.