How do we as a nation adequately celebrate a conscience, especially a pesky social conscience?
Since 1986 America has done so by observing a national holiday on the third Monday in January to honor the birth and life of Rev. Martin Luther King.
There are still many in this country who ascribe no special significance to this day. To them, it is just another three-day weekend that happens to fall during prime snow season.
That is, indeed, a shame, because the MLK celebration and the man himself mean so much to this great nation. King’s life had profound social and moral impact on the nation. It is an impact that to this day influences our culture.
He became our national conscience when few others would. He opened our eyes. And he did so at great personal sacrifice.
To put it bluntly, King changed our country forever. We are happy he did.
Of course, many remember the stirring 1963 speech on the National Mall that catapulted King into our consciousness. Even those who were born after the speech have often heard it in news clips. But there was much more to King than the brilliant oratory of a single speech. Much more.
In speech after speech, demonstration after demonstration, march after march, action after action, Dr. King challenged the orthodoxy of the times. On the one hand, he strongly chided the nation’s establishment for its willingness to accept institutionalized racism, while on the other convincing those who had felt racism’s sting to throw off that oppression nonviolently.
King’s message of love, peace, equal justice and tolerance, embraced people of all races. He persisted even though he lived in a world that resisted his call for social justice -- one where his calls for nonviolence were met by fire hoses and murder.
Ironically, it was a single act of violence in 1968 that took the 39-year-old Dr. King from us far too early. Although King was killed with a rifle shot that April day in Memphis, Tenn., his ideas about equality and fairness did not die. If anything, his death may have caused them to flourish. Or, perhaps, they were destined to gain much broader acceptance simply because they were right.
Sadly, we have yet to fully realize the vision articulated in King’s Washington speech. There is work to be done, to be sure. But honest reflection should force even the staunchest social critics to admit that much progress has been made toward that dream.
Amid much fanfare in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that created the King holiday. But it was 11 years later -- with far less pomp and circumstance, but no less importance -- that Congress designated MLK Day as a national day of service. It is a designation that seems profoundly fitting.
We think it is a legacy that Dr. King would have appreciated. He spent his life in service to the worthy cause of equality for all. So maybe that is how we can best celebrate such a conscience: by living in service to the greater good.