As we prepare to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this year, I hope we use the MLK Day holiday as a time to reflect and act. So much of the legacy of Dr. King has been distilled into his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Even the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has been truncated and the quintessential goal of jobs and freedom has largely been omitted when discussing the event, all of the individuals who made it happen and the important subsequent policy that resulted in the gathering of so many African Americans in Washington, D.C., that August 23, 1963.
A few years ago, I taught at an institution that recognized MLK Day as a “day on, not a day off.” By that, they meant it was a day for the university community to engage in various service projects, mentoring, donations and the like. During that time, we helped plant community gardens, painted community centers that needed sprucing up, visited the elderly and engaged in oral history projects in which we interviewed our loved ones who were alive during the time of the Civil Rights Movement.
When I think of Dr. King, I think of his prolific writing style. I have been teaching Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from April 16, 1963, in which Dr. King addresses injustice, non-violent protest and the necessity for unity among religious leaders. In so many ways, Dr. King was treated like a political prisoner for much of his adult life. He was harassed, beaten, arrested unlawfully, and treated with derision and blatant disrespect for merely trying to bring awareness to the injustices Black people, poor people and workers experienced in the United States.
The sacrifices Dr. King made on behalf of millions of Americans resulted in his assassination. I think about his children who grew up without a father. I also think of Coretta Scott King, who dedicated so much of her life, talent and intellect to the Civil Rights Movement while raising four children without her husband.
So, what do you plan to do this MLK holiday? Will you reach out to an elderly person and record their stories and memories of Dr. King and the Civil Rights era? Will you volunteer your time to assist a school, church or community group that could use your energy and efforts? Will you donate to one of the many centers and organizations that are continuing the legacy of Dr. King? Or will you make time for quiet reflection to see how you can become a drum major for justice.
However you spend your day, take time for a moment of gratitude and reflection for the short life of a great man.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University; author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream; and co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC and host of The Blackest Questions podcast at TheGrio.