The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was recognized with a federal holiday in 1983 when I was an elementary school student.
At the time, I felt both pride and sorrow as I read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the first time and listened to King’s booming voice deliver his oft-quoted “I Have a Dream” speech.
Back then, I also recall being bewildered by the debate over whether King’s legacy of working for equality through nonviolent action was worthy of a holiday, and why some states had refused to adopt it. After all, it had taken 15 years of lobbying by several House members, among them Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, and the late Shirley Chisholm, a congresswoman from New York and the first African-American candidate for the presidency, to get it to that point.
It seems ridiculous now. We are living at a time when many of King’s hopes for a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character have been realized.
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Still, I worry that the spirit of the day and the meaning of King’s accomplishments are in danger of fading with each passing year, and that future generations may one day take the civil rights movement for granted.
Though I am reminded by my parents, who lived through the tumultuous ’60s, and through my reading of history of the hard-fought battles of those who came before us, I admit that it is too easy to become complacent and apathetic. Simple things such as voting, drinking from a water fountain, going to school with children from different ethnic backgrounds and having an African-American president weren’t always givens.
We need to be reminded of the Montgomery bus boycott, the struggle to end segregation in the city’s bus system.
We need to be reminded of the Freedom Riders who traveled through the segregated South to stand up against Jim Crow laws, even if it meant risking their lives.
We need to be reminded of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that caused the deaths of four little girls, the lunch-counter sit-ins and the water hoses that were turned on protesters.
We need reminding, too, of the discrimination and ignorance that still exists today, despite the gains that we have made on many fronts.
It gives me hope that organizations in San Luis Obispo County are keeping the memory alive through their support of educational and cultural events.
The nonprofit Sharing the Dream, founded by Arroyo Grande resident Michael LoveGene, has been responsible for bringing the King holiday into the forefront for the past 15 years. The group sponsored a concert Saturday, and for the first time, local children — students at Laguna Middle School in San Luis Obispo — participated in an essay and art contest explaining what King’s legacy meant to them. LoveGene hopes to expand the contest to other schools next year.
We may choose not to write an essay or paint a picture, but in ways large and small, we can do our part to make the King holiday more than a day off work or school.
Even if it’s once a year, we should pay homage to those who made tomorrow possible and educate ourselves so that the injustices of the past are not repeated.
History is a great teacher, but only if we pay attention.