Since it was first celebrated as a federal holiday in 1986, MLK day has become a weird amalgamation of tributes. Some, creepier than others, well-meaning but ultimately saccharine memes, parades, clearance sales, and even a slightly amazing collection of MLK-themed club event fliers. For some, it’s a much needed three-day weekend; for others, it’s a chance for deep reflection of how far we’ve come, and how far we have left to go to realize King’s dream of equality.
But because people are gonna people, the day slated to celebrate one of the greatest humanitarians and peace activists who has ever walked the face of the Earth has inevitably become a day of strife and conflict. Log into your favorite news site or social media account of choice, and there will be no shortage of people fighting, trying to latch on to Dr. King’s legacy by giving you all sorts of interpretations of what he would have thought, said, or done about any number of topics:
Just about every politician in America will release a statement today trying to convince you why MLK would have supported their particular ideology or voted for their party’s candidate. Hell, in some states, there is still a fight on whether or not MLK would be cool sharing a day of celebration with Confederate Civil War heroes. (For the record, that is a terrible idea.)
But if you really want to celebrate MLK day, do yourself a favor somewhere in between getting that screaming deal on artesian baby hampers and hitting the MLK-themed Twerk night at the local club tonight: Get into the man and his message. Luckily for all of us, we don’t need pundits, politicians, or social media scholars to tell us what King what have done or thought because we have a pretty amazing record of his own words.
Yes, MLK was the world’s greatest advocate for peace and unity, but he was certainly not the “Can’t We All Get Along” Hallmark card we often try to make him. He was a complex figure who fought for a lot of different causes, and like most of us, went through some pretty profound transformations and evolutions. Much of what he said was inspirational, sure, but a lot of what he said was horribly uncomfortable, completely by design.
Watch the I Have A Dream speech, but then dig into “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” If you really want a better understanding of Martin Luther King and his legacy, take some time to read the tributes and celebrations of his life and accomplishments, but then spend some time digging though what a lot of people in the country thought of him before we turned him into a Disney-fied mascot of our so-called post-racial era.
The true brilliance of Martin Luther King is that he was indeed the great unifier, while at the same time a diehard radical and agitator. Let’s honor the sacrifices he made for a better world, but also acknowledge that the country he fought so hard to change ultimately killed him for his efforts. If we are doing MLK Day the right way, we should be equal parts inspired, uncomfortable, humbled, and horrified. We should feel an enormous sense of gratitude, but also a profound sense of guilt. Only by examining the good, the bad, and the ugly, will you get a true understanding of the man, the legacy, and why MLK day truly is worth celebrating.