Yesterday, the nation celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. Adopted as a federal holiday in 1983 and recognized since 1986, the nation recognizes King’s birthday as a time to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a great individual that was taken well before his time. It is also used as an opportunity to remind people that the issues are still there and must still be dealt with.
An interesting thing to consider is how we choose to recognize his life. I discovered that Dr. King has more than 500 streets named for him throughout the United States while conducting research for my undergraduate thesis. Just as interesting is the idea that there are many communities that originally chose to name a street for the civil and human rights leader only to have the name changed back due to concerns raised by citizens. I’m not about to sit here and write about how wrong that is… I am going to ask two other questions; “What are (we) doing for others?” and “Why are all of these streets named for him?”
The first question is a paraphrasing of a question posed by King himself. His death came while trying to find ways to shine a light on social and economic injustices. There are many that choose to honor King not by naming streets but by giving back. By taking off some of the blinders that he was working to remove and help everybody, regardless of race, to achieve. I am as guilty as anyone else of not always doing my part to honor King in this fashion, at least not on the day that has been designated. I believe there are many who hope that their actions throughout the year reflect favorably on his legacy. The opportunities to provide for others tend to be boundless in most of our cities; we should see how we can give back and show others positive examples of what can be accomplished when you work together, not work to separate. This is especially true in a modern society where newcomers to the country are guilty until proven innocent. Many people “of color” are turning their backs on other “minority” groups while not recognizing that they are here trying to do the same thing that we want to do: live. We should not let the acts of a few destroy opportunities for everyone.
King’s importance is unquestionable as it pertains to the civil rights movement (not just for African Americans but all members of the African Diaspora) and the war on poverty, two battles that are unfortunately still fought daily. My reason for asking the second question is not meant as disrespect to King; rather its taking that first question and building on it: Would it not serve a better purpose for people to remember those local heroes of the cause to make sure that THEY are never forgotten?
There are some that have been privileged to already be recognized in some way or form. We named many of these streets for Dr. King with the greatest of intentions. There are some however that were named as a matter of “doing something” to recognize the civil rights struggle. Perhaps we should use some of these naming opportunities to recognize those leaders who worked with King and those that still fight the struggle everyday on the local level. These heroes (and sheroes) may provide a way for people to connect with King and what his work meant in a way that they would have never considered previously.
We must never let his legacy die, for if we do not acknowledge what has happened before, it will repeat itself. The question is “are we already allowing it to begin to and how can we stop that from happening?”
I’m one of those people that believe that every day should be a day where we recognize contributions to history. I’d love to get some comments posted focusing on people in your communities that have helped write some of the chapters for black America. I think it would be interesting to see what we do know and what else needs to be done to make us more aware of everything that happens around us.