As we celebrate MLK Day today, let us recall the battle fought to gain this peaceful day set aside for our greatest civil rights leader. On April 4, 1968, a shot rang out in the Memphis sky and Martin Luther King Jr. fell silent, but King's message of one America, undivided by race, would not die. Four days after the assassination, John Conyers, a Democratic Congressman from Michigan introduced legislation for a holiday commemorating the fallen leader. But it took 15 years of reintroducing the bill, and incredible public pressure, including marches on Washington and petitions containing 6 million names, to get the legislation passed by Congress in 1986. Even then, many states fought the federal holiday by refusing to observe it as a state holiday. In Arizona, now the center of immigration struggles, Governor Evan Mecham used his first day in office in 1987 to rescind the state's recognition of the day that had been enacted by his Democratic predecessor Bruce Babbit, setting off a boycott of the state that included losing host status for the 1993 Super Bowl when the NFL voted to move the game from Phoenix, Arizona to Pasadena, California. By 1993, MLK day was celebrated in all 50 states, though not always under his name (for example, Utah used "Human Rights Day"), and with some states pairing the holiday with Confederate recognitions (Arkansas pairs MLK Day with Robert E. Lee Day), an absolute negation of the day's significance to civil rights. South Carolina was the last state to join the party in 2000 with a state paid holiday for all state employees. Before that, state employees could choose to celebrate MLK Day or one of three Confederate holidays.
The difficulty in achieving consensus on honoring the memory of MLK and his Dream with a national holiday is demonstrative of the greater difficulty in realizing the Dream. Though progress has been significant in some respects, our nation elected its first African-American President in 2008 when Obama defeated McCain, an Arizona Senator who voted against the Federal MLK holiday and initially backed Governor Mecham's rescission of the state holiday, in many ways we are still divided by intolerance and injustice. Arizona remains a hot bed of racial angst as that state passed legislation that carried anti-immigrant sentiment into far reaching legal sanctions. While gay soldiers are just achieving the right to openly serve in the military, same sex couples still battle state by state to achieve the right to marry. And while prominent African Americans have become our cultural, political and spiritual leaders, 50% of black men will not graduate from high school, and this tragic waste of potential is absorbed into our prisons. In 2008 The Pew Charitable Trust reported that:
After three decades of explosive growth, the nation's prison population has reached some grim milestones: More than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars. One in nine black men, ages 20 to 34, are serving time, as are 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men. Nationwide, the prison population hovers at almost 1.6 million, which surpasses all other countries for which there are reliable figures. The 50 states last year spent about $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections, up from nearly $11 billion in 1987. Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan and Oregon devote as much money or more to corrections as they do to higher education. These statistics... point to a terrible waste of money and lives.
We must hold fast to King's dream, for in that dream is the salvation of our nation. As Coretta Scott King said:
"This is not a black holiday; it is a peoples' holiday. And it is the young people of all races and religions who hold the keys to the fulfillment of [Martin Luther King's] dream."
When the words of our Nation's Declaration of Independence were signed by our forefathers, "we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal," their concept of equality did not yet include African-Americans or women. Yet the beauty of this nation is that we are evolving to meet an ever more inclusive and true recognition of human rights. We have not arrived yet, but our history shows a consistent path toward a more perfect union for all. Each MLK Day we should count our achievements on the path toward realization of the Dream, as well as the disparities that still keep us divided.