I’m in favor of holidays, period. Compared to most cultures, the United States has very few festivals where work ceases and we celebrate those things that are most important to us as a society. These times of rest and remembrance are important.
I’m particularly thankful that there’s a federal holiday in the United States that celebrates the life of Martin Luther King. As one of the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century, he stands as an icon for the struggles that black Americans have faced – and the victories they have won – during the last 400 years of hideous abuse, slavery, Jim Crow, and present-day mass-incarceration and police brutality.
As the #BlackLivesMatter movement reminds us, the civil rights struggle is far from over. The blood, sweat, and tears of our 20th-century civil rights heroes must be followed up by the clear-eyed resolve of a new generation. Ideally, celebrations like Martin Luther King Day should help to sustain this resolve, energizing us for the hard work ahead.
That being said, I suspect that King would not be too thrilled about MLK Day. I doubt he would take much solace in all the schools and highways named after him. The newly erected MLK monument – an enormous stone statue of King overlooking the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC – would almost certainly leave him cold. “What an enormous pedestal they’ve built for me”, he might say.
This past year I’ve had the opportunity to read a number of King’s sermons. Like any good preacher, in each of his speeches King brings something new to light, but he also demonstrates a deep repetition of theme. One of these repetitions is a passage from the prophetic Book of Amos, which warns of coming judgment for a disobedient nation. One of the passages that King quotes most often is Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the text, these might just sound like pretty words. But if we take a look at the verses preceding King’s favorite quote, we see a different story:
“I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. […]
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
King wasn’t interested in symbolic victories. He wasn’t concerned about whether the civil rights movement was honored by politicians with a national holiday, monuments, and pretty speeches. Quite the opposite. He was well-aware of the human tendency to put on a big show in order to cover up our own lack of righteous living.
King knew that God hates holidays without humility, songs without sincerity. He would know that in a country where black lives still do not seem to matter to most of us, where millions of African Americans are imprisoned or branded as felons, that any celebration of civil rights victory is premature. If King were here to celebrate his holiday with us, he would ask us to show him justice, not statues; changed hearts, not new names on freeways.
As we remember the life and legacy of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Bayard Rustin, and the many thousands of others who have poured their lives into the struggle for freedom, let’s make sure we keep our eyes on the prize. The civil rights campaigns of the 20th century are over, but the 21st century struggle for righteousness and justice have only just begun. A few more marches and few less statues would make Martin proud.