PSU Black Studies professor reflects on MLK’s legacy

BY SHIRLEY JACKSON
FACULTY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR

This marks the 20th year that all U.S. states recognized the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday. 

The idea of the MLK or King holiday, as it is referred to be many, started with Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow. After her husband’s assassination in April 1968, Coretta wanted to find a way to honor his memory and the work he was doing. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta was the result. 

Coretta continued to work diligently to have King’s birthday recognized as a holiday.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill that recognized King’s birthday as a national holiday. Some states began celebrating King’s birthday in the mid-1980s, a few southern states celebrated it along with the birthday of Civil War Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, but it took until 1990 for all states to observe the King holiday.

King’s birthday gives us the opportunity to remember the things that he did in his lifetime and spurs us to continue this work. 

His legacy includes the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the many speeches and marches he gave, and his writings such as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was a response to white religious leaders who warned him against embarking upon his nonviolent activities. 

In this letter, King vocalized the importance of his actions, writing, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.” King’s statement makes clear that while things look as though they will not change, with time, they will — and not because we are loud or quiet, riotous or righteous, but because we are sound and right. The key is understanding that there are different ways of going about it and some may be quick, and some may be slower than others.  

“Make it a day on, instead of a day off,”
by engaging in service activities. Let us remember why we celebrate this day.

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill in 1965, King moved to other issues such as employment, housing, and opposition to the Vietnam War. 

His assassination at the age of 39 did not end the work he set out to do. 

As we celebrate his birthday, many opt to “Make it a day on, instead of a day off,” by engaging in service activities in their communities. Let us remember why we celebrate this day. 

Happy Birthday Dr. King!

Shirley A. Jackson, Portland State University Professor,
PSU Black Studies Department

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