Working on a Holiday: Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream?

Holidays might be used as an indicator of those ideals a country values above all others. For example, in the U.S. we have 10 federal holidays, including Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. Those holidays, as I understand them, are set apart from typical days to honor the foundational American value of freedom, and those who established and defend that freedom. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, as well as Inauguration Day. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly fought for freedom, and not just for African Americans, but for all Americans whose lives were burdened not only by racism, but also by poverty and voicelessness. MLK’s vision of America requires not only racial equality, but also economic fairness. Inauguration Day is a day we celebrate the functioning of our political system. It’s a day that we observe a peaceful transition of power, the voice of the voters, and perhaps think about unity with those whom we disagree with politically. It makes good sense to me that these should be federal holidays. We should set this day aside and honor these values. It’s not an ordinary day.

Regardless, many people I know are at work. In fact, when I look at that list of federal holidays, I can’t help but notice that a lot of people have to work many or most of those days. But, it’s not all of us who have to work most of those days. In fact, it’s the working poor who have to work most, really all, of those days. The waitresses serving breakfast to the hung-over on New Year’s Day, those working the Memorial Day sales at the mall (all those days have sales by now, right?), or the hotel staff cleaning your sheets and towels when you’re off to visit family on Thanksgiving. As I write this on MLK Day, neighbors on my block are rushing to get their trash to the curb for pick-up I’m sure they expected would be delayed, but isn’t. Some won’t get the trash out because they are at work. In fact, many people who are solidly in the middle class work many of those days, and certainly on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Teachers are teaching, lawyers are lawyering, and the pharmacist was there to fill my prescription this morning. It’s a holiday, we all know it, but almost everybody is working. You can’t help but wonder what values our actions represent.

When MLK Day was proposed as a federal holiday, shortly after his assassination, it was not widely supported. Senator Jesse Helms famously argued that he wasn’t worthy of such an honor, and was in fact a dangerous, communist radical. It took until 1983, 15 years after his death, for the day to become a national holiday. It wasn’t until 1986 that the holiday was first observed, and not until 2000 that it was officially observed in all 50 states. When President Reagan reluctantly signed the bill in 1983, he did so despite his own concerns about what it would cost in economic productivity (I take him at his word). But, like so many of the holidays, almost everybody is working today. So, maybe it’s not costing that much? If one celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of American society free of racism and poverty, and guided by a sense of economic justice, then one must do so with a keen awareness that there is much work to be done. The poor celebrate the day at their less-than living-wage jobs, and most of the middle class is at work producing for the corporate powers that be. For many, it’s only a day off of work if they spend one of their limited personal or vacation days. Our calandars and speeches give honor to the dreams of MLK, but our actions seem to speak to a different set of economic values.

***

Yes, I’ve got the day off. Le Moyne’s spring semester starts tomorrow. A few years ago I taught on Veterans Day, November 11th. The class before, a student and veteran of the war in Iraq approached me in shock that classes would be held on Veteran’s Day. I told him he was welcome to honor the day and miss lecture, but that we would be in class according to college policy.

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