Did you know that today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 90th birthday? We will celebrate it on Jan. 20, but his legacy is worth honoring today.
The establishment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national federal holiday did not happen without a lot of resistance, rejection, betrayal, disappointment, setbacks, patience, prayer, tenacity, hope and overcoming of obstacles. These are some of the same qualities that characterized Dr. King’s civil rights journey before and after his death.
On Sept. 20, 1958, a 29-year-old King was signing books at Blumstein’s department store in Harlem, New York. Standing in line to purchase his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” an African American woman named Izola Ware Curry stepped out of line, pulled a ivory handle letter opener from her purse, lunged at King and stabbed him with a seven-inch blade in his chest. The doctors told him if he sneezed he would have died.
While King was recovering in this hospital he received countless letters, but the one that stood out as most memorable to him was sent by a young girl. Her letter said, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth grade student at the White Plains High School,” King recalled. “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.” This life-threatening experience epitomized how love and hope can overcome violence.
On April 12, 1963, King was arrested for a nonviolent demonstration and detained in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. During his 24-hour detention, eight of his clergy colleagues criticized his civil rights methods in an article published by the Birmingham News. In response to this article, King penned the renowned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” letter which galvanized many clergy around the civil rights movement. King’s letter demonstrated how sacrifice, appeals, patience and engagement can overcome division and fragmentation.
In 1983, when John McCain was a congressman, he voted against making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The vote in the House of Representatives was 338 to 90. On April 4, 2008, on the 40th anniversary of King’s death, McCain changed his position. In Memphis, Tennessee, outside the Lorraine Hotel where King was assassinated, then Sen. McCain said in a speech, “We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I myself made long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong. I was wrong, and eventually realized it in time to give full support — full support — for a state holiday in my home state of Arizona. I’d remind you that we can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans.” This change of heart personifies how life, service, conversation and knowledge can overcome misunderstanding and bureaucracy.
President Ronald Reagan initially opposed the holiday. However on Nov. 2, 1983, Reagan signed a bill to establish a federal holiday honoring King. Signing the bill to create a federal holiday shows how humility, history and humanity can overcome decades of humiliation, hostility and harassment.
The song, “We Shall Overcome” was and remains a prophetic civil rights and social justice anthem. It was the song in which King would lock arms with his fellow brother or sister, sway back and forth and sing the lyrics as a prediction to the opposition, a promise to the people and a prayer to God.
Theresa A. Dear is a strategist at The Human Capital Strategy Group.