Although making Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday was controversial — understandably so since he was a highly controversial figure during his lifetime — the holiday in one sense has become utterly ordinary. Instead of being celebrated on Dr. King's actual birthday, Jan. 15, it falls on the Monday closest to that date so that we Americans get what those who decide such things figure is much more important than an exercise in historical remembrance or a call to idealism — a three-day weekend.
It is appropriate to remember Martin Luther King Jr., however, because of his key role in ending one of the most shameful features of American life that persisted for far too long — legally imposed segregation, discrimination and denial of equal rights based on what should be an irrelevant factor, the color of one's skin. Although we are still far short of perfection in racial matters, we have come so far since Martin Luther King was killed in 1968 that it may be difficult to remember just how pervasive and hateful racial discrimination was not so long ago.
Dr. King as a civil-rights activist was notable for choosing specific issues that highlighted the injustice of enforced segregation and asking for remedies in line with the best of American traditions. His insistence on using strictly nonviolent means in protests underscored the justice of most of his causes and the commitment to change through peaceful means, and no doubt contributed to the effectiveness of his activism.
His "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington remains one of the finest pieces of oratory in our history. And who can hear this — "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" — and not cheer?
When he came out against the Vietnam War, which many of his supporters questioned, he operated from a key insight: "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence against the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government." The direct and indirect violence of discrimination and the direct violence of war are both enemies of progress and freedom.
"Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence," Dr. King once said, "but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him." That's wisdom from which we can all benefit.