Would MLK want MLK Day?

Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day signifies different things to different people. Some see it as history while others see it as a continuing struggle against discrimination. Some see it as a day to spend extra time with the family, a day to sleep in or a day to relax.

Through Public Allies New York, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to serve on MLK Day with youth from Police Athletic League (PAL). We–the Allies–provided PAL youth with a safe space to reflect, to serve and to express themselves creatively through art. The reflections were personal, with youth sharing stories of when they’ve discriminated and when they’ve been discriminated against, and how to overcome barriers so that we can collectively uproot discrimination. To serve, the youth made care packages for the homeless. The youth also made t-shirts which told stories of how they want to lead, whether through care, love, friendship or initiative. Some youth made banners (see photo below).

I think Dr. King would’ve been proud of these youth for their hard work and open-mindedness to service.

I personally spent the day thinking about whether Dr. King would want MLK Day? I see the benefit in having such a day to commemorate Dr. King and his life’s work. I also value the passion of those who worked tirelessly to make MLK Day a nationally recognized holiday. Moreover, if MLK Day wasn’t celebrated, perhaps I would’ve never gotten the opportunity to serve with PAL youth.

However, by having such a day, do we limit the permanence of Dr. King’s legacy? Does Dr. King’s legacy come and go as quickly as MLK day? Dr. King believed in love, non-violence, and in establishing equality through service. To truly honor Dr. King, one has to observe these values everyday, and it’s not that tough to do so. Here are some ways:

  1. Serve. Any service is significant, no matter how small, be it helping someone carry home groceries or finding ways to improve your neighborhood and community. Check out All for Good to find nearby opportunities to serve.
  2. Reflect. Think about what you’re doing and whether your actions will help you and others become better people. Contemplate the impact of your actions in the present, and not what you think the impact will be in the future. Doing morally questionable things now to do good in the future is a rationality trap.
  3. Love. Be compassionate towards others, especially to those that don’t reciprocate; they perhaps need compassion the most. See the goodness in people, no matter how wicked their actions.

The things Dr. King stood for are very much needed today, and observing Dr. King’s legacy is therefore an everyday sort of thing. What I’m not suggesting is to do away with MLK Day. I’m instead recommending that we supplement MLK Day with a continuous effort to serve, reflect and love daily. I humbly contend that through such a continuous effort we can realize Dr. King’s dream of a better world.

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