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On The Decision to Not Observe MLK Day

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At the beginning of the school year in a meeting with our teachers union, we were told that our district did not want to offer teachers a full week of Spring Break; we'd have Monday through Wednesday off but had to return Thursday and Friday. We were given a choice however: have off for President's Day and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and have a three-day Spring break or get the full Spring Break and work on President's Day and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Our union chose the latter. As 1 of only 5 African American teachers in a district that is made up of 50 percent African American students, I was taken aback. However, I scoffed at the motion and reasoned to simply not work that day, I said to myself, "I'll take a personal day." I wasn't that bothered by the whole thing in September, October or November. In December however, the thought that our school wouldn't be recognizing MLK Day started to sink in. Now it is indeed January.

Last year, our district decided to have a half-day instead of a full day off, adopting the "day of service" option, where our students conduct community service projects throughout the day, in addition to learning lessons on MLK in their classes and the hearing the reading of the "I Have a Dream" speech in the morning during homeroom. Also, our district has conveniently scheduled midterms this week and the first day of those midterms is MLK Day. I am wondering how we went from the day of service, to no recognition at all. I have over heard that what is being planned is a moment of silence in honor of MLK, in an attempt to placate the outrage, but as a friend of mine so eloquently said, we're not honoring the man's passing rather we are celebrating his life. Yet when I think of our school and the decision from the top to present such an ultimatum to the teachers, I can't help but think of the history of MLK Day in this nation and the disregard for the impact of MLK's life in these United States of America.

When a bill for the holiday was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1979, it was voted down. Opponents argued that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive and the U.S. doesn't grant holidays in honor of individual citizens --mind you Columbus Day, a man who discovered nothing and killed and enslaved Arawaks & Tainos natives, was made a federal holiday by FDR and Congress 45 years earlier but I digress. Reagan himself didn't even support the holiday and the only reason he signed the bill into law is because of the overwhelming vote in favor of the holiday in Congress which made the bill veto proof (338 to 90 in the House and 78 to 22 in the Senate), saying that he signed the bill "since Congress seemed bent on making it a national holiday."

Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law creating the holiday in 1983, but MLK Day wasn't celebrated until 1986. While MLK Day was made a Federal holiday, states could recognize if they so chose... some states chose not to. In Arizona, a Democratic governor instituted MLK Day only for it to be rescinded by the next governor who was a Republican. After a flip-flop by John McCain and the sacrificing of Columbus Day and outrage from the Italian American community, the Arizona legislature compromised to have both days, yet the people voted against MLK Day. Thus the NFL made good on its promise to move the Super Bowl in protest of the non-observance of the holiday, moving the Super Bowl from Arizona to Pasadena, California.

In South Carolina until the year of 2000, state employees had to choose which day they'd celebrate as their paid holiday: MLK Day or one of three Confederate holidays. In Virginia until the year 2000, MLK was celebrated in the same day as Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, two Confederate generals. Mississippi still shares the celebration of MLK's Birthday with Robert E. Lee's birthday. Unfortunately, many folks in America were not, and some are still not, enlightened to the impact of MLK's life. MLK did not just fight against injustice against African-Americans, but he also fought for injustice against all. MLK was not a communist, he was a Christian. He called our country out for our citing our Christian ideals throughout the world yet not being true to the values of Principals of Jesus Christ, holding firm to capitalist principals that shapes the U.S. as a society of economic exploiters abroad and economic elitist within our borders. If racial justice was that much of a threat, MLK would have been assassinated at one of his many marches in the South. Rather King was cut down prior to the Poor People's Campaign march in support of sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee. My school is located in Camden, NJ. Camden is the poorest city in the country with a poverty rate of 42.5 percent -- the rate for children living in poverty in Camden is higher with a rate of 56.7 percent.

When MLK spoke of alleviating poverty regardless of race and bringing America's attention to such devastation poverty has imposed in our nation, he was speaking specifically of places like Camden. For our school governance to disregard the connection between King's goals and the environment within where we attempt to educate black and brown children, many of whom are economically disadvantaged, is disheartening, disappointing and an indictment on who we say that we are as a school and our standing within the community. This is not about a day off and anyone who believes that my writing this is about that and is foolish enough to comment saying such, is as ignorant as the decision makers in my school district who honestly reasoned that MLK Day was simply a regular day in the calendar -- a day where remembrance of King's life isn't warranted and his message of service to man and community not held in high enough regard.

I am of the firm belief that any entity and/or organization receiving Federal dollars must observe every holiday commissioned by the Federal Government, MLK Day being one of those days and my district, like countless others, who receives Title 1 funding, should consider themselves apart of such as list. I am unsure of my next steps. I am still digesting the meaning of this district action. Regardless of my next move, one thing is clear: educators everywhere have a responsibility to preach the message of justice in our curricula, model justice in our behavior and recognize the champions of justice such as Dr. King. When we fail to do that, we make a mockery of what this nation is supposed to stand for and we make frauds of us all.