Atlanta The federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. has taken on added meaning for most Americans this year, as they try to make sense of the violence in Arizona that left six people dead and a member of Congress fighting for her life.
A state that once resisted the notion of a federal King holiday — and last year was the setting for a sharp-tongued debate on immigration — now finds itself in search of solace after the Jan. 8 attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the throng of people around her outside a grocery store in Tucson. The balm of choice is King, a pacifist Southern preacher whose own life was cut short by gun violence.
“Dr. King’s message was about inclusion and the recognition of human dignity, of human rights and making sure that all of our voices are heard,” said Imani Perry, an African-American studies professor at Princeton University. “I hope people in Arizona, in particular, embrace that part of his message. The politics in Arizona recently have often seemed to revolve around excluding people.”
Today marks the 25th federal observance of the birth of King, whose words were often met with hate and resistance during one of the nation’s most turbulent and transformative eras. Today, King is one of the country’s most celebrated citizens and the only one to be honored with a national holiday who did not serve as a U.S. president.
“So little of his real politics show up in these annual commemorations,” said Morgan State University professor Jared Ball. “Instead of actually reading what he wrote or listening to what he said, we pick catchphrases and throw his name around. We all feel for the tragic incident that took place in Arizona, but this is happening to people all over the world every day in one form or another.”
Many use the King holiday to celebrate King’s life and struggle for human rights. Some choose to honor King by following the Baptist preacher’s example of service to their fellow man. For others, the holiday is equal to Presidents’ or Columbus Day: just an excuse for a long weekend, to take a short vacation or do nothing.
Martin Luther King III, head of The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, said the Arizona tragedy is a grim reminder that the country has not yet achieved his father’s dream of a peaceful society.
“When incidents occur like what we saw in Arizona, it shows us how much work we must do to create the kind of nation where nonviolence is embraced,” King said.
A national remembrance of the civil rights icon is an opportunity for the country to renew its commitment to King’s cause. Absent that, it’s unclear how his legacy would be remembered, said Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley.
“The holiday brought the freedom struggle into the main narrative,” Brinkley said. “The day is meant to be a moment of reflection against racism, poverty and war. It’s not just an African-American holiday. The idea of that day is to try to understand the experience of people who had to overcome racism but in the end are part and parcel of the American quilt.”