Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service: A National USA Holiday with International Resonance

Before today, I had noted that Martin Luther King, Jr Day was marked on my international calendar, and had been preceded by a number of related films on television, notably Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Though at odds for most of their civil rights careers, at the end of their careers, prior to the assassination of Malcolm X, he and King had reconciled. Most notably, both were adopting a more international and broader social agenda, seeing the civil rights movement as concerned with oppression and poverty everywhere. This was reflected in the actions and writings of both men.

It was only at the end of the day, and in preparation for this post, that I reviewed the formalities of, and ideas behind, Martin Luther King, Jr Day. In doing so, I was reminder of some things I had known, and learned some new ones. Other aspects were revived from a vague memory to a new conceptualization, given recent events in the US (the Tucson Arizona shooting), Tunisia (the ongoing struggle for social justice and a representative government), and now the return of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier to Haiti.

Duvalier was exiled in 1986, following a popular revolt in 1985 against this scion of a corrupt, repressive dynasty begun by his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" were brutal, corrupt dictators supported by the US, as bringing "stability", and a "violence free period" in the history of Haiti--seeming thus to overlook the horrors perpetrated by the family's private militia, nicknamed the Tonton Macoute.

The name Tonton Macoute in Creole translates to Uncle Gunnysack, and is a name from Haitian mythology about a boogeyman who kidnapped and disappeared children at night. The Duvaliers' Tonton Macoutes would disappear opponents and social progressives at night, or sometimes in the day.

The Haitian popular revolt of 1985 was such that in 1986 US President Ronald Reagan urged "Baby Doc" to leave. France allowed him in, without granting him official asylum. He has supporters there, and has tried to return unsuccessfully, to stand for the presidency since.

However, the Tonton Macoutes stayed in Haiti as insurgents in the countryside, and are no doubt among those welcoming "Baby Doc" back, as he proclaims his desire to help his earthquake ravaged country. A certain faction of the populace surveys the chaos, shambles, and lack of effective aid, and wishes for a strong leader who can get things done, or as one said, "There is bad in everything, but since him we haven't had a real leader".

Human Rights groups are hoping to prosecute Duvalier, and that doing so will kick start the elective process which has been stymied by inconclusive results and accusations of corruption. Others suggest that the US and France have combined forces to put "Baby Doc" back in power as an "elected" strong leader that they can support. Another value of their ahistorical perspective is that they can ignore "Papa Doc" was "elected", and also had their support.

Indeed, there is need for civil rights movements and leadership in a number of places internationally, as well as a recommitment to the same in the USA. One of the things I learned anew, in reviewing about Martin Luther King, Jr Day, was how resistant certain states were to enacting the Day which was signed into legislation as a federal holiday by Ronald Reagan in 1983. Not until the year 2000 was it enacted in all 50 states, and even then reluctantly in some as a "Civil Rights Day" or in combination with commemoration of leaders of the Confederacy.

That former states of the Confederacy should be reluctant makes sense, and they were also the toughest opponents of Civil Rights. More surprising was the recalcitrance of Arizona--at least to me. After reading about it, I remembered that the campaigns against John McCain mentioned his opposition to the Day, and reversal of that opposition, helping the holiday to be signed into state law in 1992. Still, I realized that in the last couple of years I have become more aware of Arizona as a bastion of conservatism, and, with it, racism against African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Before that, Arizona primarily registered in my mind as an asthmatic sufferer's retirement destination. The recent elections have relegated that image to the background.

One aspect of Martin Luther King, Jr Day that was newer to me is its combination with a Civic Action Day to honour King in deeds as well as words.

Good morning. Thank you. Please be seated. It was such a beautiful and, for August, a cool summer day, we thought we ought to move to the Rose Garden today and give us all a chance to enjoy this wonderful beauty.


The King Holiday and Service Act of 1994 in this bill combines for the very first time our national holiday in honor of Dr. King with a national day of service. Nothing could be more appropriate, for it was Dr. King who said everyone can be great because everyone can serve. I always think of the great line he said, that if a person was a street sweeper, he ought to sweep the streets as if he were Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel and try to be the best one in the whole world. That is what I think all of us ought to be about doing.

Dr. King taught us that our faith can redeem us, that the sacrifices of individuals can sustain us, that moral courage can guide us. He dedicated himself to what was in his time and what remains the most difficult challenge we face as a democratic people: closing the great gap between our words and our deeds.

Now we are attempting in this bill and in this administration to accept this challenge for those who are still barred from the American dream and for those who worry that their children will have less of it than they had. We're doing our best here to give Government back to ordinary citizens, with an administration that is really more like America than any ever has been, not only in terms of its racial and gender diversity but also in its commitment to excellence, with 4 million new jobs, 20 million young people eligible for reduced college loans, 15 million working families getting tax cuts, and 3 years of reduction in our deficit for the first time since Mr. Truman was the President.


But we know and we learn here every day that laws alone cannot restore the American family, cannot give individuals the sense of selfworth and purpose, cannot make the American community what it ought to be. It takes the miracle that begins with personal choices and personal actions and that cuts through the fog of cynicism and negativism that grips every American from time to time and has often gripped this country too much.

Giving every citizen at the grassroots a chance to make a difference in his or her own life is a big part of what our efforts are all about. This law helps us to do that by linking the observance of Dr. King's birthday to a day of national service, an extraordinary idea and a timely one because just next month we will launch AmeriCorps in full-blown initiative, with 20,000 young people serving their communities at the grassroots level and earning some credit to further their education while doing so. Nothing could better serve the legacy of Dr. King. He was apathy's sworn enemy and action's tireless champion.


With today's action we can broaden that effort. We can give many more an opportunity to make a difference, to respond to the needs of their communities, whether through tutoring children or housing the homeless, improving parks or keeping our people safer. As Senator Wofford has said in what I think is one of his best statements, "The King holiday should be a day on, not a day off."

Dr. King's time with us was too brief. But his vision was so great, his moral purpose was so strong that he made us believe that we could be better than we are and that someday we would be able to walk hand in hand together into a brighter tomorrow.

He said, and I quote, "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. Life's most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?"

Today we can say with some pride we have given all Americans a better chance to work together and to help others. This celebration of Dr. King will now be a celebration of his vision of community, his vision of service. And his life proves that it will work for all Americans and for our country.

Thank you very much.


Totally new to me, was the idea that there was any commemoration of the day in Canada whatsoever. After all, we never had many slaves; slavery became illegal by a British Act of Parliament governing us in 1833; no plantations, no Reconstruction period, no Jim Crow laws, no Civil Rights movement American style. On the contrary, Canada was a destination on the Underground Railroad.

Most slaves in pre-1833 Canada were aboriginal slaves, acquired by Aboriginals in tribal wars. First Nations Peoples and Inuit, while not enslaved, have received ongoing poor treatment from Canadian governments--though better now than in previous times. Still, there is immense room for improvement in education, health, employment, recognition of land rights, and conditions--physical and social--on reservations and among off reservation natives (>70% of the native population).

Toronto is the one place in Canada where Martin Luther King Jr Day is officially recognized. More than 50% of Torontonians are first generation immigrants. Most of those are visible minorities--except in Toronto. Many are political refugees from wars, strife, and oppressive regimes in Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia. Most are economic immigrants from (the same) Third World countries.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

January 18, 2010

WHEREAS Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy to society is the leadership he provided by his commitment to justice, equality and the elimination of racism through non-violent social change.

Dr. King strengthened the civil rights movement by building upon the actions of grassroots activism which focused on the elimination of barriers faced by people of African descent to achieve an inclusive society that embraced the differences amongst people.

The people of Toronto are in the forefront of efforts to establish a caring and compassionate society based on the elimination of all forms of discrimination and disadvantage and the inherent ability within each of us to recognize that the fundamental strength of our community is our diversity.

The residents of Toronto honour Dr. King's memory each year with a day of remembrance in January, to reaffirm our commitment to the basic principles of human rights, equality and justice.

NOW THEREFORE, I, Mayor David Miller, on behalf of Toronto City Council do hereby proclaim January 18, 2010 as "Martin Luther King Jr. Day" in the City of Toronto.

Mayor David Miller


In keeping with Canadian tradition, I did not particularly recognize Martin Luther King Jr Day (of Service). I did, at the end of the day, watch one of Turner Classic's commemorative film offerings: Glory. This 1989 film is a wonderful tribute to the African Americans who fought to free themselves during the Civil War, to the process of desegregation, and to the achievements of contemporary African Americans who figure prominently among its actors, Civil War experts and re-enactors, and who sing of their glory (the Boys Choir of Harlem features prominently on the soundtrack). It is also a tribute to the American abolitionists, all those who fought, and the white Americans who made the film.

1890 Lithograph--Storming Fort Wagner

While generally acclaimed, including for its historical accuracy, the film has been criticized as presenting the events through the writings and viewpoint of the white commanding officer; and, of presenting the decision to boycott unfair pay as coming from the African American troops themselves, when in fact the white commanding officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, was the catalyst. These criticisms seem petty to me in light of the cinematographic value of the film, and its impact in reminding Americans of an important part of their history. Indeed, they seem to cancel each other out.

Shaw's diaries and letters provided one of the best sources for the formation and training of one of the first African American fighting units and their initial battles. Transposing them to film has given many, nationally and internationally, access to this knowledge in memorable form, along with an inspirational reminder of how precious human rights are.

How did you spend Martin Luther King Jr Day (of Service)?
What is the meaning of the day for you?
If you are not American, does King's message, and that of his commemoration resonate with you and the situation in your own country?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?


Haitham هيثم Al-Sheeshany الشيشاني said...

What an amazing post! Thank you so much. I learned a lot indeed :)


Wendy said...

The USA has come a long way but they still have a long way to go when it comes to racism. Canada also.


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