MLK Holiday- A Day Still Worth Remembering

Monday, January 20, 2020

MLK was actually born on January 15, 1929, although this year we celebrated his birthday on the 20th. If he had not been assassinated on April 4, 1968, he would be 91 years old this year and could have looked forward to another 3.78 years of life according to actuarial tables for white American males.

Instead of 91 years of life, James Earl Ray (March 10, 1928 – April 23, 1998) cut him down at age 39.  His untimely death at age 39 did not make a positive contribution to the actuarial tables for black American males.

As with every day that we designate as a holiday, it may be of benefit to the human race to periodically ask ourselves if a day, person, or event is still worth commemorating.

The annual Panathenaia, the ancient Greek commemoration of Athena’s birthday is no longer celebrated, at least not in Texas.

National Holiday

On Nov. 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to make the third Monday of every January a federal holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr . It was to begin in 1986, although it was not observed in all states until the year 2000. Some states have combined it with existing state holidays while others have made the holiday a celebration of human rights more broadly.

Idaho’s Idaho Human Rights Day is a example of expanding the scope of the holiday.

Other examples of the combined holiday are:

Alabama: “Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Birthday”
Arizona: “Martin Luther King Jr./Civil Rights Day”
Arkansas: “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday and Robert E. Lee’s Birthday” from 1985 to 2017, then from 2017 to the present, the name of the state holiday in January is “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday,” and Lee’s is in October.
Idaho as noted above: “Martin Luther King Jr.–Idaho Human Rights Day”
Mississippi: “Martin Luther King’s and Robert E. Lee’s Birthdays”
New Hampshire: “Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day”
Virginia:  Lee-Jackson-King Day until 2000; then Lee-Jackson Day was moved to the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Wyoming:  “Martin Luther King Jr./Wyoming Equality Day”

The fact that a few of these states have combined the holiday with that of  previous heroes suggests that their legislators may not have reached a consensus about what an MLK Holiday actually means.

Confederate Heroes Day

Few Texans know that the 19th day of January is, “Confederate Heroes Day,” in honor of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate heroes.  This year it falls on Sunday, the day before the MLK holiday.  Our schools no longer teach us about Confederate Heroes.

Confederate Heroes Day could easily be merged with Athena’s birthday and celebrated in July on the 23-30 of Hekatombaion (July), except that the exact date may be confusing because Julius Caesar messed with the ancient calendar. And Athena was not real!

Confederate Heroes Day could also be mercifully relegated to the graveyard of history, where History takes a less impassioned look at people and events. Are the passions of the current “woke” generation by themselves enough to justify jettisoning the memories of long revered heroes?

Rather that an abrupt end to a holiday that some people may secretly enjoy celebrating,  Heroes Day and other holidays can simply be merged like Saturnalia and Christmas.  They could then be promoted as an additional important shopping day.

A more realistic end to the holiday could happen in the legislature, as Texas did to eliminate anachronisms like Article 1, Section 4, the Texas Constitution.


Revolution is occasionally necessary, as are divorce, bankruptcy, and other painfully abrupt changes in human experience. None of our holidays, memorial statues, or buildings named after Everett McKinley Dirksen needs to be abruptly dismantled in a Revolutionary fashion. Time and Evolution will make informed decisions about what to remember.

Evolution is no less violent than revolution. Both involve death. But evolution plays out over longer periods of time and is devoid of human emotion, sentimentality, and immature righteous indignation.

Let evolution deal with statues of Andrew Jackson on horseback.  Let the study of history inform us about the successes and mistakes of our progenitors. Combine the noble instincts of mediocre dead people with the learned writings of our greatest scholars and make holidays to remind us that there were a lot of people who lived who were smarter than we are.

The founding fathers were among the smart people, as were Thomas Payne and John Locke. July 4th is an excellent day to remember them collectively.  Presidents Day is a good day to remember Washington and Lincoln, who rose to greatness because of their circumstances. Lump them all together if remembering presidents is a good idea.

Someday the third Monday in January may be commemorated as Human Rights Day, recognizing the works of MLK,  James Griffin, John Rawls, Charles Beitz, Joseph Raz, John Tasioulas, and maybe Martha Nussbaum  to make sure the list is inclusive. While these people are alive, no one will agree that any one of them is worthy of a day to remember their work. Perhaps “Dead Philosophers’ and Activist Preachers’ Day” will combine them all together with enough anonymity that everybody agrees  that all made a contribution.

Simplicity of the MLK Message

MLK had a relatively simple message: end racial discrimination.  His broader message was that we call all live together united.

He will not be remembered as a philosopher arguing the nuances of Human Rights.  He will be remembered as a gifted communicator and in the mind of many as a martyr to the cause he espoused. He really was not a martyr.  He was just murdered. The man who killed him did not hate his message; he just wanted to become famous for killing somebody who was also famous.

MLK was an agent for social change that the country still desperately needs.

Until his dream has become reality, a day to commemorate his message is appropriate without being complicated by conflicting messages.  Human Rights Day and Civil Rights Day are fine.  Dead generals need their rest.

Community Discussion

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