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Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrates civil leader's legacy, equality for all

David Bedard
Fort Wainwright PAO

David Bedard"I really think that the American Revolution will not be complete until we commemorate the civil rights revolution and guarantee those basic declarations of human rights for all Americans and remove those barriers that stand in the way of people being what they are meant to be," former Rep. Jack Kemp, 1983.

Kemp so eloquently voiced his support of House Resolution 3706 to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day after voting against the holiday in 1979, highlighting the tortuous 15-year path to commemorate one of the greatest civil rights leaders in American history.

According to his biography on the Nobel Peace Prize Web site, King began his civil rights career in late 1955, when he organized a 382-day boycott of Montgomery, Ala., buses immediately following Rosa Parks' arrest for her refusal to give up a seat on a bus Dec. 1 of that same year.

According to the biography, King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, which was founded to organize the leadership of the growing civil rights movement.

In the ensuing 11 years, King traveled more than 6 million miles and gave more than 2,500 speeches, consistently appearing at the flashpoint of the movement, leading to his arrest on 30 occasions. He based the movement's nonviolent protest techniques upon those of Mahatma Gandhi, who successfully worked toward the independence of India.

Although King was assassinated in 1968, his efforts and those of the civil rights movement helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to legislative and court victories in cities and states spanning the United States.

According to Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars author Don Wolfensberger's article "The Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday: The Long Struggle in Congress," Rep. John Conyers Jr. introduced the first bill to establish Jan. 15, King's birthday, as "Martin Luther King Jr. Day," just four days after the civil rights leader's April 4, 1968, assassination. Although the bill failed, Conyers sponsored a similar bill year after year, gathering congressional cosponsors along the way.

The article detailed the 1979 push for the holiday. Opponents of the bill cited the cost of adding another paid holiday for federal employees to the calendar, an estimated $212 million, in a House report stating the "establishment of a public holiday to honor a private citizen would be contrary to our country's longstanding tradition."

H.R. 3706 wasn't passed until 1983, the article said, riding on the lobbying of the King Center and the financial support of sympathetic celebrities. The holiday was scheduled to fall on the third Monday of January, with the first observance of the holiday being April 20, 1986.

Conyers, who tirelessly sponsored the bill for 15 years, said, "I never viewed it as an isolated piece of legislation to honor one man. Rather, I have always viewed it as an indication of the commitment of the House and the nation to the dream of Dr. King."

I believe Conyers' statement serves to inform our observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, because the congressman's words cut to the core of why he sponsored the bill and why it was eventually passed. As the 1979 House report suggests, it was unprecedented to commission a federal holiday to honor a private citizen.

Conyers was asserting that, although named for King, the holiday concurrently honors all those who undergirded his leadership and who risked and often lost their freedom and their lives to support a dream of an America unfettered by the shackles of segregation and discrimination of blacks and other ethnic minorities. These leaders and trailblazers included people such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.

Therein is the paradox of the holiday, because I believe King's lifetime accomplishments merit the honor of an observance without regard to others' accomplishments. The fact he embodied the hopes, suffering and efforts of those who came before and after him in advocacy is a testament to the gravity of the holiday and its association with the legacy of King.

I also believe it's important to observe the invaluable accomplishments of the civil rights movement and to be vigilant in protecting the rights of others during Martin Luther King Day.

Nelson Mandela, former South Africa president and antiapartheid leader said, "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

That is the essence of Martin Luther King Day. No matter what a person's ethnic background is, the observance of King's accomplishments and the accomplishments of the civil rights movement is a responsibility of all who love the precious freedoms and opportunities now afforded to all Americans.