It is becoming increasingly common across the country for offices and universities to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day as one of the primary holidays of the year. I fully support the effort to make the holiday increasingly widely observed.
I have heard two reasonable objections to observing MLK Day as a primary national holiday (by primary, I mean one which the norm is for schools, offices and universities to close). The first is that many, if not most, people do not spend MLK Day celebrating Dr. King. The second objection is that certain aspects of Dr. King’s life were less than perfect, so when viewed in light of his faults, he is not deserving of a national holiday.
Neither objection seems particularly persuasive. First, the purpose of observing MLK Day as a primary holiday is not in the hope that everyone will spend the day celebrating Dr. King. If people do so, that is great, but if they do not, the value is not lost. Even if it is just for five seconds in the shower in the morning, people who have the day off will at least remember the reason and recognize the importance of the day.
Regarding the second objection, it appears as though there is substantial evidence that Dr. King plagiarized parts of his dissertation, and there have been accusations of adultery. But what exactly do we celebrate on MLK Day? Does any credible person believe that Dr. King’s legacy is one of plagiarism or adultery? No. On MLK Day, we celebrate the idea that he stood for: that all of humanity is inherently equal. Is that idea any less valid or important if the messenger was flawed? Of course not. That idea is one in which the United States, at least in the 21st Century, can and should stand for.
The values of a society are reflected by the holidays it observes. By elevating MLK Day to the status of one of our most revered holidays, we are recognizing a critically important part of our nation’s history, and we are simultaneously expressing our collective support for Dr. King’s dream.