On Monday, January 15, 2018, many Americans will commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Those same Americans will probably criticize even condemn the man responsible for the celebration.
Four days after the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Conyers introduced a bill to establish a federal holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader. On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Regan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday, effective Jan. 20, 1986. As a result of this bill, Americans now commemorate the birth and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It took Congress years to affirm the wisdom of John Conyers call for a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It took Congress days to affirm the negative allegations against John Conyers and call for his resignation. It would seem that this year the celebration of the king will not include any praise of the kingmaker.
Congressman John Conyers fought for a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Amid racial prejudice, political posturing and a constricted democratic polity, Conyers spearheaded the movement to establish MLK Day. Conyers, who worked in the civil rights movement, was elected to Congress in 1964. He was a key champion of the Voting Rights Act and devotee to the message and person of America’s premier social justice drum major – Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Conyers has a tested civil rights legacy. He was supremely confident in the movement for racial equality and in the quality of Dr. King’s leadership. He pressed forward when others did not until he was successful. In 1970, Conyers convinced New York's governor and New York City's mayor to commemorate King's birthday. In 1971, the city of St. Louis followed suit. Conyers pressed forward. The movement continued. Finally, the combination of a ground swell of local support for the celebration in other localities, a song by Stevie Wonder and a savvy political calculus won the day. The first Martin Luther King Jr., federal holiday was celebrated in 1986.
In 2018, a time when America is on the verge of the destruction of the public square, growing racial tensions and in the grip of an unpredictable president we need to be reminded of the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream and hope for America. We also need to despite the political climate honor the man who created an enduring speed bump in our national calendar frenzy to honor America’s greatest drum major for justice.