We all know that students and a good percentage of working adults across the country get a day off from school and work on the third Monday of January in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday.
Although he was assassinated in 1968, it wasn’t until 2000 that King was honored with an official federal holiday, observed by all 50 states. A lot of people fought long and hard to establish MLK Day, having to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles to make it a reality.
But to what end? Aside from getting the day off, in what other ways are Americans impacted by having this federal holiday? At a minimum, are young people learning about Dr. King’s message in our schools?
Recently, I asked a couple of elementary school aged children what they learn in school about Dr. King. One student—an 11-year-old boy who attends a school where the student body is predominantly Asian American and Latino—responded that all he knew was that Dr. King brought all the races together. He said that aside from that he wasn’t taught much more. When I asked how much class time was devoted to learning about Dr. King’s message, he told me that his textbook only had a single short paragraph. Then he mentioned that the class spent much more time learning about Christopher Columbus.
Clearly, these are the remarks of a single 11-year-old and may not be a reflection of the average 5th grader’s experience. But, judging from the sanitized version of Dr. King that is offered up to the masses via parades, television shows, and other “celebrations”, I’m not surprised the young man knew so little.
In the United States, most people know the month we honor King’s birthday yet a fraction of those know much about the man. Still fewer know that there’s another date that figures prominently in the life of King. That day is April 4th.
April 4, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech—one of his most politically charged. Delivered exactly one year before he was assassinated, King’s powerful and angry “Beyond Vietnam” speech indicted the United States for its actions in Vietnam, comparing them to actions taken by Germany’s Nazis. He didn’t pull any punches. This was the radical King, the democratic socialist King. This King bears little resemblance to the sanitized King covered, if at all, in American school books.
This month, April 4th was the day that progressive communities across the country paid homage to Dr. King—myself included. In Watts, under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Art Cribbs, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity and Justice Not Jails partnered with Macedonia Baptist Church and others for commemorate King’s powerful speech in an event called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”
What an evening it was! A half dozen speakers from such organizations as the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, Amity Foundation, and Southern California Nevada Conference of United Church of Christ read passages from King’s daring speech, followed by interludes from the church’s mass choir.
During the evening, I moderated a panel session titled “The Role of People of Faith in a Time Such As This,” which featured powerful testimony from Hussam Ayoush of the Council on America-Islamic Relations,” Hilda Cruz and Rev. Deborah Lee of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniel of Beth Shir Shalom.
In several speeches in the months before his assassination, King had decried the three evils of society: racism, excessive materialism, and militarism. Even just scant days before America launched dozens of Tomahawk missiles at Syria, each panelist remarked at how little progress our country has made in the nearly half century since King was killed—each wondering how sad and angry he would be that we have made so little progress.
Much thanks go to the evening’s host, Macedonia Baptist’s Pastor Shane Scott, who—along with Rev. Cribbs—announced that there would be followup trainings at his church and elsewhere around Los Angeles to develop skills for combatting current efforts to target immigrants and for creating a spirit of sanctuary. Look for news on that.