Now that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill has been passed by Congress, and the president has said that he will sign it into law, it is important to consider the meaning of the holiday and how it can be best observed.
In terms of significance, the King holiday is unique. First, there is the obvious fact that this will be the only holiday in honor of a black American. The holiday can be a way to honor the contributions of black citizens of America and to remind us that racial equality must always be a cornerstone of our democracy.
However, this must not be celebrated as only a "black holiday." Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply commited to racial integration. He believed that Americans of all races must learn to "live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools."
The movement was not just for the liberation of black people. Martin believed deeply that it was equally important to free white people from the moral burden of forced racial segregation. The Civil Rights Movement itself was a multi- racial endeavor that reflected the interracial solidarity Martin sought for our society.
No other holiday serves as a focal point for encouraging improved race relations. The holiday can help unify America in the spirit of Martin's dream.
The holiday will have special meaning for young people, who will be inspired by the courageous example of a man who began to lead a historic reform movement at the age of 26 and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at 34. We must begin to convince our young people that you don't have to carry a gun to change history, and Martin's life and work provide the preeminent example that demonstrates this truth.
Young people in particular need nonviolent role models like him. In many ways, the Civil Rights Movement was a youth movement. Young people of all races, many of whom were jailed, were involved in the struggle, and some gave their lives for the cause. Yet none of the youth trained by Martin and his associates retaliated in violence, including members of some of the toughest gangs of urban ghettos in cities like Chicago and Birmingham. This was a remarkable achievement. It had never been done before; it has not been duplicated since.
For me, the overriding importance of the holiday is that it can help America focus on forging a new commitment to nonviolence. With few exceptions, the history book has gloried in the dubious achievement of the generals and warriors who have supposedly "solved" the great conflicts of American history.
However, in just 13 years of organized nonviolent struggle, black Americans achieved more genuine freedom than the previous four centuries had produced. This is an impressive testament to the power of nonviolence. The efficacy of the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence is the most important lesson we can draw from the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.
From his study of history, he believed that violence always sows the seeds of bitterness, resentment and ultimately more violence. He saw that retaliatory violence was a vicious cycle that carried with it the seeds of its own destruction. He reasoned that the only way to break the cycle of violence was for someone to refuse to retaliate. He read of the historic nonviolent movement for independence led by Gandhi in India, and fused Gandhi's tactics with the religious principles of unconditional love, truth and forgiveness even for one's adversaries that he learned in his Christian training. "Man must evolve for all human conflicts a method that rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation," Martin said. "The foundation of such a method is love."
Until the American Civil Rights Movement, many people believed that nonviolence was something that could only be applied in Eastern cultures like that of India. But Martin saw that nonviolence was at the heart of our Judeo- Christian heritage and was entirely consistent with democratic values.
Today his legacy of nonviolent action for social, political and economic progress is more relevant and desperately needed than ever. The price of violent conflict between individuals, communities and nations has become unbearably high in this nuclear age, and only nonviolent conflict-resolution offers a viable alternative.
For this reason the holiday must be substantive as well as symbolic. It must be more than a day of celebration. To many Americans a holiday means a "day of rest." Let this holiday be a day of reflection, a day of teaching nonviolent philosophy and strategy, a day of getting involved in nonviolent action for social and economic progress.
For more than 15 years, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta (the official national memorial) has observed his birthday with this commitment and has conducted activities around his birthday in many cities. The week-long observance has included a series of educational programs, policy seminars or conferences, action-oriented workshops, strategy sessions and planning meetings dealing with a wide variety of current issues, from voter registration to full employment to citizen action for nuclear disarmament. This January the center's observance will focus on achieving and implementing the legislative agenda issued by the New Coalition of Conscience at the Aug. 27th March on Washington.
As it chooses its heroes and heroines, a nation interprets its history and shapes its destiny. The hopes of humanity are irrevocably linked to the destiny of America. The commemoration of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. can help this nation realize its true destiny as the global model for democracy, economic and social justice, and as the first nonviolent society in human history.