An MLK Day Classic: The Uses of Official Holidays

 by Michael C. Dorf

[In honor of Dr. King, today's short rerun comes from 2010 (originally posted here). I think it holds up pretty well, except in one detail. I had worried that celebration of Dr. King's legacy could lead to the false belief that racism in America was a thing of the past. No one paying attention could think that today--although, of course, a whole lot of people do believe it.]


The Uses of Official Holidays

Back in the 1980s, it was still politically acceptable for some prominent Republicans to oppose an official holiday recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Prominent examples included Jesse Helms (well, duh), Ronald Reagan, and John McCain.  Reagan eventually capitulated and McCain changed his mind in that mavericky way of his.  Even at the time, it wasn't clear what angle there was for a politician in opposing the holiday, except for someone like Helms, whose appeal was unabashedly racist (in a way that Reagan's and McCain's were not).  Would anything really turn on whether kids stayed home from school, and department stores held mattress sales, on one day in late January?

As it turned out, the holiday has made a difference.  For one thing, MLK Day has thus far resisted commercialization.  Perhaps it's simply a matter of time, but I have difficulty imagining car dealers dressing up as MLK and telling potential customers, "I have a dream that you can save a bundle if you come on down to Joe Blow's Chevrolet for our annual MLK Day Sale" in the way that they do for Presidents' Day.

The holiday has been especially important for kids.  I don't know for sure, but I strongly suspect that were it not for the day off from school, elementary school children would not be taught about the civil rights movement as regularly as they are.  I doubt that my daughters--ages 5 and 8--could tell you who Susan B. Anthony or Frederick Douglas was, but they know about King and the story of Rosa Parks.  As a parent, this can be awkward.  For example, the other night I found myself explaining how breaking the law and going to jail can be the right thing to do if the law is unjust, while at the same time trying to explain why this principle does not apply to rules of the household.

More seriously, the annual activities leading up to MLK Day put our schools in a role that it is sometimes said they fail to play: civics instructors. MLK Day is an excellent opportunity to teach lessons about the great civic value of equality.  It also inoculates children against later history lessons that portray American history in triumphalist terms: Before they even have a vague sense of what happened when, they know that not that long ago, America was a land of considerable injustice.

Is there, in all of this, the risk that MLK's message will be watered down to harmless banalities and his economic program completely overlooked?  Yes, of course.  Is there also a risk that schoolchildren will come away thinking that racism and discrimination are things of the past?  Yes to that too.  Nonetheless, I think we educate more broadminded future voters by commemorating MLK than we would by ignoring him.  There really was something more than a symbol at stake in the battle over whether to commemorate this day officially.  Or perhaps a better way to say that is that the symbol that was at stake mattered a great deal.  As Holmes said, "We live by symbols."