Paul R. Lehman, Observance of MLK, Jr’s day misunderstood

January 17, 2011 at 12:12 am | Posted in Bigotry in America, Ethnicity in America, Race in America | 4 Comments
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Mention civil rights to most Americans and they will tell you the first image that pops into their minds is either Martin Luther King Jr or African Americans. Why? Because they have been programmed to believe that American Civil Rights are the concerns of only African Americans. Too many Americans do not know the significance of the civil rights movement and the tribute made to them by honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., with a national day. For many Americans, Martin Luther King Jr.’s day is just another day off. That attitude needs to change.

Many Americans associate American civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr., and rightly so, because it was King who was the spokesman for the cause. What many people do not realize is that King did not wake up one morning and decide to become a civil rights leader. After the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, and the introduction of the young Martin Luther King, Jr. the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist church where organizational meetings were held, a number of leaders from a variety of civil rights organizations met and decided that instead of each organization making public speeches and demands, they should unit and combine their efforts and speak with one voice. The voice they chose to represent their concerns was the young African American preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. Since and after Montgomery, until his death, King was the public civil rights leader, not the only civil rights leader. The civil rights organizations with leaders such as Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Whitney Young were all part of this movement and they were not all African Americans, a myth that some Americans viewed as true until a number of European American civil rights workers were murdered in the line of duty.

The gains made in America through civil rights acts were gains not for African Americans alone, but for all Americans. Certainly, African Americans were in the forefront of the battle because they were the primary victims of civil rights abuse. However, if some Americans care to remember, prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Acts certain jobs and professions were generally reserved for males and they were usually European Americans: postman, fireman, and policeman. Many professions were simple male dominated like doctors, lawyers, dentist, judges, politicians and others. Because of King and the other civil rights leaders’ efforts, those jobs and professions now include among their ranks a variety of Americans. The titles have been changed to reflect a more inclusive identity: postal worker, firefighter, police officer.

What happens today in America relative to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is unfortunate in that the emphasis of most celebrations focus on King and generally his “I Had A Dream” speech. Americans need to be educated to the fact that King’s speech and his life was not the end of civil rights concerns, but a means to a call for justice and fairness for all Americans. The March on Washington in 1963 was a protest march to apply pressure and make demands on America to live up to its creed to honor each person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The subsequent passage of the 1964, 1965, and 1968 Civil Rights Acts is proof to the positive efforts of King and others. Without their efforts, America would not have experienced the social changes that have taken place because of these Acts. This information is somehow lost during the celebration and because it is lost, many Americans, especially European Americans pay little or no attention to the day let alone join in the celebration. What must be emphasized is the continuing influence these Civil Rights Acts have on society today.

Most American women, especially European American women since they represent the majority, should be at the forefront of any celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement because they are the biggest beneficiaries of it. We are not just talking about jobs in the work force, but the opening of doors in schools, medical, law, and a host of other. Dare we mention where women athletes would be today without Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act? The many opportunities and advantages enjoyed by American females are due in large to the work of King and the organizations her represented. America should take note of this and build on it instead on focusing on King’s “I Had A Dream” speech as if that was the only contribution he made worthy of honor.

The fact that many a schools across the nation chose to give their students a day off while making King’s day an in-service day shows either a lack of respect and appreciation for the work that King and other have done or ignorance and bias for not using this day as an opportunity to educate themselves and their students. Americans should not be given the opportunity to understand and appreciate the fact that although Martin Luther King, Jr. was the spokesperson for the movement, the movement did not die with him nor did the efforts of other concerned Americans. American was changed for the better because of King and the civil rights movement, so let us celebrate those changes while we pay homage to King’s memory and continue the work he helped to champion.

We Americans should come together as a country and recognize that we owe a debt of gratitude to many who came before us and through their efforts helped to make our lives better. We need to know what they did and why and how they did it, because if we remain ignorant of their sacrifices for us, we will indeed have nothing to celebrate.  Knowing the name Martin Luther King, Jr. is as important as knowing what he stood for and what he represented, but just knowing his name is not enough.



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  1. As a European-American woman pastor I say a hearty Amen. Thanks for putting this in the proper perspective. I will march with a deeper understanding tomorrow evening in the Stillwater observance.

  2. Indeed for many the holiday only celebrates Dr. King and that alone is a celebration worth having, but as you point out he symbolizes so much more. Recognizing and embracing what was accomplished while understanding that the struggle continues is what this day must be about. While we celebrate remember it was only after threats of serious economic consequences that Arizonia recognized this day. Even more recently Texas celebrated MLK day simultaneously with Confederate Hero’s Day. Thank God for Dr. King and all who will not settle for anything less than making that dream a reality.

  3. Some view any holiday, even Christmas, as just a day off from work.
    As to principals in the civil rights movement, I think Martin Luther King Sr. deserves remembering for the foundation he laid for his son’s work. The senior Rev. King didn’t get much notice, but he worked quietly for many years to advance the cause.

  4. Insightful review of the significance of the holiday. Truth of the matter is that we just don’t READ enough!!! If it isn’t on television, we simply don’t know.

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