onday marks the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and here in Jackson County it will be a busy day – and week. Western Carolina University is holding a weeklong celebration of the MLK legacy, with speakers, volunteerism and educational opportunities.
The day itself has turned from a day of observance to a day of service. The history of that shift is an interesting tale.
Indeed, the holiday itself is an interesting tale. There are 12 federal holidays, but only three commemorate people – Washington’s birthday, MLK Day and Columbus Day.
Columbus Day was never a major holiday here, and may well be on the way out nationally after historians have revisited the Columbus record.
MLK Day shares that in that his legacy is constantly being revisited. One North Carolinian in particular, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, didn’t want the holiday in the first place, and in 1983 announced his intent to filibuster the enabling legislation on the ground that King’s movement was crawling with Communists and Marxists. Helms attempted to open FBI files on King, which were sealed.
Responding to the communism charges after signing the day into law, President Ronald Reagan said, “Well, we’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?”
Some records have been released, and some critics have decried what they describe as salacious details of King’s life. Other FBI records remain sealed until 2027, and a casual reading of historical scholars regarding what’s in those records seem to lean toward them looking bad for the Bureau overall and late Director J. Edgar Hoover in particular.
Incidentally, while Helms’ move failed, it likely gained him reelection, as he was trailing Gov. Jim Hunt in polls for the upcoming U.S. Senate race before all the controversy.
The history of the holiday didn’t change with Reagan’s signature. It took an important new path in 1994 when Congress passed legislation introduced by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the King Holiday and Service Act, which designated the holiday as a national day of service – “a day on, not a day off.’’ (Helms voted against that, too; he and fellow N.C. Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth represented half of the four votes against).
So, the history of MLK will continue to be written. In the meantime the history of the day named in his honor is writing itself quite well.
We have a tendency to either ignore holidays, treating them as a three-day weekend and maybe a chance for a cookout or to catch up on binge-watching whatever the hot series online is at the moment. Not so with MLK Day. There is reflection, but mainly there are people out there trying to answer a challenge laid down when he said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
In this county, we are proud to say there are many doing much for others, and not on just one day.
That’s a fine legacy.
We’re happy to watch it grow.