On this upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many students at my Jackson, Mississippi college will have to attend class. The school's decision came after an unplanned schedule change: All on-campus activities in January had been postponed after bad weather led to water line breaks and loss of pressure in the city. In a January 6 statement, Millsaps College dean and provost Keith Dunn clarified: “Classes will begin in the afternoon of Jan. 15 (MLK Jr. Day) at 12:55 pm."
Initially, we had been told that the return to class would not be on Martin Luther King Day. With this clarification, however, Millsaps students will instead be expected to attend a half-day of class — and although they can excuse themselves from class in honor of the day, students are expected to make up the work.
Reclaiming Civil Rights leaders' messages — which have been simplified into small ideas like love and peace, non-violence and dreams — has been a large part of shaping my personal politics. So, on January 6, when I found out that I would be expected to attend classes — that professors would be expected to give lectures, that sanitation staff would be expected to be on campus, that the dining staff would be expected to be on-campus to prepare meals — I was disappointed
Martin Luther King Jr, Day is a holiday that, to me, celebrates labor organizations.
I was disappointed, but not surprised.
What The Holiday Actually Means
A little background: Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday in 1983, after about two decades' worth of campaigning for it following King’s assassination in 1968.
Though his holiday is seemingly simply symbolic, Martin Luther King Jr Day was created by supporters of one of King’s last efforts — The Poor People’s Campaign. At its core, the holiday celebrates and uplifts labor unions and workers.
Shortly before his assassination, King had focused on the Memphis Sanitation Strike: After years of dangerous working conditions and inadequate pay, triggered specifically by the on-the-job deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, over 700 Black sanitation workers in Memphis began striking on February 12, 1968.
King visited the Memphis strike on March 18, and attended a demonstration on March 28. After King’s assassination on April 4, his wife Coretta Scott King continued supporting the strikers’ efforts on April 8, when she participated in a completely silent march. Finally, the strike ended on April 16, when the City of Memphis agreed to recognize the sanitation workers’ union and give wage increases.
Martin Luther King Jr, Day is a holiday that, to me, celebrates labor organizations. It encourages Americans to stand up and serve their communities.
Why The Decision Not To Recognize It Matters
The day is significant. Millsaps’ choice to only partially recognize it is also significant.
Though it might have been difficult, had the school wanted to lengthen the semester by a day or two, it likely would have been possible. Instead, Millsaps chose to take a day that holds significance for many students, faculty and staff members. (In a statement to Bustle, Milssaps said:" No one liked the idea of holding classes on MLK Day, but ultimately, the decision to proceed was approved unanimously ... Plain and simple, the decision was made to help preserve the integrity of the academic semester in the face of an emergency that was completely out of control.")
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is largely symbolic — but it matters. Three years after Reagan made it a federal holiday, having Martin Luther King Jr. Day did not change the fact that the U.S. Congress passed laws that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for possession or trafficking of crack to cocaine. It did not change the fact that, in 1983, the Black unemployment rate was 19.5 percent whereas the White unemployment rate was only 8.4 percent. But it did give people a shred, a symbol of hope.
This year, I encourage you to learn about Martin Luther King Jr’s later efforts and to read his later speeches — after you leave work, if you have to. Further, I'd encourage you to read about King’s lesser-recognized contemporaries, like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray Adams.
While the day itself may be a symbol, the work, thoughts, and actions done by King and many others were very real.
Editor's Note: This op-ed does not reflect the views of BDG Media and is part of a larger, feminist discourse on today's political climate.