The Content of Our Character: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday

03/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jim Thomas Lawyer for business/Steward for Colorado

More than any of the other legal holidays, this one challenges us. First, we were challenged to establish the holiday. Now, holiday in place, we return to a more fundamental challenge: Are we who we say we are? The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a national mirror that dares us to recognize our failings and still strive to live up to our ideals.


Public Domain: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01269

The third Monday in January is the federal holiday honoring the life and achievements of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The tumultuous story of its establishment begins only four days after Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968 and continues for 15 years at the federal level, even longer in some states, to culminate on November 2, 1983 with the adoption of a new legal holiday beginning in 1986. In between, we see America in its full humanity, struggling with its failings, but ultimately transcendent.

Fortunately for a post on "legal" holidays, Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech begins with very legalistic metaphors: the ideals of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence are a promissory note issued to the people of our country, yet payments on that note to people of color are being returned for insufficient funds. Dr. King, however, refuses to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt, and without asking for or accepting excuses, demands an appropriate cure; he calls on our nation to "rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"

We have made progress toward Dr. King's dream; the first non-white-male president of the United States is one clear indication. I see another indicator in my family. As a high school freshman, I was bused under court order to integrate a traditionally-black inner-city school in Virginia to overcome decades of Plessy v. Ferguson's separate-but-equal failings. Today, my daughter is a freshman in an inner-city, racially-diverse high school in Denver, by choice. Yet, lingering achievement gaps among racial and economic groups in her school and Colorado schools generally remind us that we have more work to do.

Today, Denver holds a "Marade," one of the largest King Day celebrations in the country. A Marade, a term coined by Wilma Webb, former State Representative, former First Lady of Denver, and founder of the King Holiday in Colorado, is both march and parade, both demonstration and celebration, her way of reminding us that in civil rights, human rights, no matter our accomplishments, ongoing attention is required.

Striving is central to the content of our American character. I am reminded of the remarks of one of Dr. King's predecessors in the civil rights movement concerning an even earlier figure in America's struggles to live out its creed. From W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, writing about President Abraham Lincoln: "I love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not and yet triumphed."