My university used to hold classes on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day—a policy I wholeheartedly supported. I used the opportunity to spend time in my writing classes looking at the masterful craftsmanship of King’s rhetoric. People tend to remember him today for his “I Have a Dream” speech, but King was a highly effective writer and a distinctive stylist. I thought this was an excellent way to not only give my students a useful lesson about writing but also help deepen their appreciation for a man worthy of a national holiday.
Alas, we have the day off this year—a decision unilaterally made last year by an interim president who declared it “the right thing to do.” I’ve never been a big believer that a day off is the best way to honor or commemorate someone. Better to have class and conduct a lesson relevant to the day as a way to try and raise my students’ appreciation, I’ve always figured. I’m not sure how many students are going to say “Thanks, Dr. King!” for their chance to sleep in on their extra day off. (The university did announce, this morning, a slate of events for later in the week.)
But if we’re going to have King Day off because it’s “the right thing to do,” then certainly we should celebrate President’s Day in equal fashion, too, right? After all, it’s also a national holiday specifically designated to honor the contributions of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (not all presidents, as is often misunderstood). Except the university does not take the day off—which suggests to me that we have King Day off not because it’s “the right thing to do” but because it’s the politically correct thing to do.
I’ve heard no viable argument for having one day off but not the other. The closest anyone’s come was a colleague who said that King Day is perhaps more relevant to us today because the Civil Rights struggle continues. I get that, particularly at a time when America seems especially troubled by racism. King Day is an important reminder of the work we still have yet to do in the name of equality and social justice.
But the “What have you done for me lately” rationale implies the exact reason why we should commemorate Presidents Day, too: to remind people (students especially) why the contributions of Washington and Lincoln remain relevant, too. By ignoring Presidents Day, we only contribute to the epidemic of historical illiteracy and lack of civic understanding that has weakened our society.
Yes, Washington and Lincoln have both “had their day,” as another colleague said. We don’t need to pay as much attention to them because they’ve had plenty attention paid to them already, he suggested—and implicit there was the idea that they had their moment because they were white men of privilege. Unfortunately, that demeans their contributions simply because of their race, which is exactly what the Civil Rights movements urges us not to do.
Washington made sure we had a country to begin with, first on the battlefield, then at the Constitutional Convention, then by the example of his personal integrity in the office of president at a time when America wasn’t quite yet sure if it was going to be a nation of laws rather than of men. Lincoln, for his part, saved that nation by seeing the Civil War through to its successful end, at the cost of his own life. Those are no small contributions, and they’ve impacted us all. Lincoln’s authorship of the Emancipation Proclamation and his efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment are Civil Rights achievements arguably no less important than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vital leadership a century later.
King himself drew a direct line from the Civil Rights movement back to the Civil War, and from himself back to Lincoln, when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In that one line, King not only made an explicit reference to Lincoln, “a great American” in whose “shadow we stand,” but he evoked the “Gettysburg Address,” too, which began with its famous “Four score and seven years ago.”
The rest of King’s speech is filled with other powerful allusions and metaphors. (A personal favorite of mine is his evocation of Shakespeare’s Richard III when he laments about “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent,” but instead of a glorious summer made by the sun of York, he hopes for “an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”) He had great skill at turning a phrase, and his rhetoric is as fresh and electric today as it was in 1963.
King’s use of repetition to drive home points works brilliantly on the page, and it had an almost hypnotic rhythm when delivered verbally. Again, his phrase “I have a dream” is best remembered today, but his speech gains its strongest momentum as he roars into the home stretch with a series of phrases that begin “Let freedom ring.” Among the places he calls out in that last sequence:
…let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi….
He specifically names a pair of iconic southern Civil War-related sites, Stone Mountain and Lookout Mountain, followed by rather anonymous hills and molehills in a state that was literally afire with Civil Rights-related strife (“Mississippi Burning,” anyone?). King makes a deliberate connection between the Civil War and Civil Rights—a thread that carries on today, made explicit by the National Park Service’s theme for the Civl War Sesquicentennial.
King’s a remarkable speech—one I encourage everyone to read, and read closely, if you’ve never taken the opportunity. (And if you ever visit the Lincoln Memorial, you can stand on the step where King delivered the speech; an inscription on the step marks the exact location. It’s wicked cool to stand there.)
King fought for equal rights, and so it’s based on that premise that I argue King Day and Presidents Day should be given equal treatment. Both holidays have equally relevant stories worth commemorating, and in commemorating them, we strengthen, not weaken, our democracy by developing our students’ sense of history, justice, social responsibility, and civic engagement.
A day off, while always a welcome opportunity to sleep in, means a lost opportunity, too.