Martin Luther King Jr. Day

This coming Monday, we pause for a moment to reflect on the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebrated on the third Monday in January, in honor of Dr. King’s birthday on the 15th, this national holiday has a fascinating history that truly embodies the efforts of an everyday man turned hero.

Much like the activist himself, the day we now celebrate as a national holiday was, at one point, considered wildly controversial. For as fondly as he is remembered, during his life Dr. King was vilified, targeted, harassed, and possibly even conspired against. So, it should not be surprising that though the initial legislation was introduced in 1968, just four days after his assassination, it took 15 years for any type of movement. It required tireless advocacy from his family and political leaders, over six million signatures gathered by the Congressional Black Caucus, and a hit song by Stevie Wonder for the bill to pass and the legislation to be signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Despite this success, the holiday was not actually observed until 1986 and it was declared a National Day of Service in 1994. Moreover, it took until the year 2000 for the holiday to be recognized by all 50 states. To this day, however, some states still combine the celebration of MLK Day with the state holiday Robert E. Lee Day.

For many, their understanding of the scope of Dr. King’s achievements is often centered around his infamous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and key moments in his civil rights activism like the Selma to Montgomery March or the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But the history of Dr. King is much deeper and richer than is often recalled. Many Americans know him solely for his non-violent approach to protesting racism, but few recall his involvement as a union advocate and his organizing for the advancement of broader economic justice. People often forget that the reason he was in Memphis on the day he was assassinated was because he was supporting a Black Sanitation Worker strike. His sudden death on April 4, 1968 cut short Dr. King’s next chapter in his fight for true freedom, the Poor People’s Campaign.

The platform of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign was jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, affordable housing and education for poor adults and children. Much of this platform is carried on through our work at United Way Greater Cleveland. Our efforts to address and eliminate poverty build on the work of Dr. King and many other great leaders, but it goes without question that it is his boldness that inspires me as a leader. Explicitly naming racism as a major root cause of poverty should not be seen as controversial, but it requires us, as individuals and as an organization, to be unafraid to speak plainly. I am reminded of quote by the late Dr. King that I believe should inspire all of us to do just that.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”

As we enter this holiday weekend, I encourage you to find a way to celebrate while honoring Dr. King’s commitment to a more perfect union. Beyond this weekend, I encourage you to take advantage of our new Volunteer Time Off (VTO) to give back to the community year round.

Scroll to Top