Martin Luther King Day is one of my favorite holidays. You will learn why in a minute.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that law firms and lawyers are reluctant to celebrate Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. It often seems that they grudgingly allow lawyers and staff to take the day off, if they must, but firms do not encourage anyone to do so.
You often hear that, because people have just gotten Christmas and New Year’s Day off, that MLK Day makes for “too many” days off in a short time, as if three days off in a few weeks is a terrible thing. The expectation, too, is that you should work until Memorial Day without having any holidays. President’s Day as well is usually treated as holiday on which you should be working.
Even though you hear talk about concerns about productivity, continuity and not falling behind in your work, it is all but inevitable that you will hear someone launch into a commentary about their opinion that there shouldn’t even be a Martin Luther King Day.
That’s when I love to jump in and say that it’s one of my favorite holidays. In part, I do that because I enjoy rattling the cages of people who carry on about their half-baked, ill-considered opinions, which is usually the case, but I also do so to make them consider carefully what they are really saying and how others might interpret their remarks.
I also do that because I enjoy telling my own stories about Martin Luther King Day and why I like to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. on this day.
I was in Washington DC attending law school at Georgetown from 1980 to 1983. If you recall, that was the time that the effort to make the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday was in full swing. I don’t pretend to be anything more than an interested bystander, but I got the chance to attend two very large rallies on the Washington Mall in support of the holiday effort. Both of them made strong, positive impressions on me, but one memory always stands out.
I supported the cause, but I really wandered over the events after my law school classes in order to see what was happening and to see and hear some of our best speakers and musicians. I also wanted to be part of a large gathering of people all committed to a positive cause.
It’s easy today to be jaded and cynical, to see everything in terms of politics and ideology, but, looking back, I think that everyone should experience at least once the phenomenon of being in a crowd of thousands of people holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” For that moment in time, at least, you really do get an overwhelming sense of what humans can do that is right and just. That feeling may not last long, but it is a cool thing.
Another thing that was fun was to be in a huge group of people chanting, “we want a holiday, we took a holiday.” I like the flavor that gives to the phrase “taking a holiday.”
Here’s my memory that stands out. One of the years, Stevie Wonder was going to debut his Happy Birthday song (lyrics here). It was a gray, cold day. I remember snow on the ground and ice on the sides of the Washington Monument, under which we stood and watch a succession of speakers and performers appear on a stage.
When Stevie Wonder finally came out to play his song and, I swear this is true, the sun appeared and bathed the whole scene in a warm light. When I looked up at the Washington Monument, the ice and condensation shone in the light in a way that looked like a single tear on the face of the monument. It was a rare and spiritual moment that affected me profoundly – a feeling of being in a place I was meant to be, at the right place and the right time.
That’s something personal to me – you can have your own reasons for what you do.
A few years ago, I decided that one of the things that I’d gradually like to accomplish over the years is to visit some of the places in the world associated with spirituality – some people refer to these as “places of power.”
For example, in 2004, I was in Oklahoma City and Jim Calloway took us to the Oklahoma City bombing memorial in the late evening. I remember walking with Tom “Inter Alia” Mighell and we were chattering away until we walked up to the point where you overlook the memorial. We immediately became silent. In fact, I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I really could not have spoken. I felt the silent spirituality and power of the place. It was an amazing experience, one I recommend to everyone, and I’ll always be grateful to Jim for taking us there.
The year before, I had been to a friend’s wedding in Auburn, Alabama, flying into and out of Atlanta. I had always been impressed by Tom Peters’ comment that whenever he was in Atlanta, he stopped by the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I had a little time, a GPS navigation system in my rental car, and decided to do the same.
I didn’t realize until I got there that the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site is there, with a big visitor’s center and other features. The church is quite modest, but being inside of it fills you with a sense of history, reverence, awe and connection. As I left the church and walked down the street, I realized for the first time that Martin Luther King’s grave is also there. Like the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial, it is a memorial that feels exactly right. The short time I was able to spend there was quite wonderful – in its own way, both profound and peaceful – and I highly recommend a visit. I plan to return with my family one day.
I like to take a few minutes on each Martin Luther King Day to remember my own connections to this day. I also think that it makes sense to attend some kind of event or to take the time to reread something like the Letter from Birmingham Jail or the I Have a Dream speech, or to listen to or watch that profound and magical speech. Other speeches are available here and here.
This morning, I was thinking about the “I Have a Dream” speech and what a gift it is to us. Part of its magic is how it is impossible for any politician to try to commandeer it for his or her own purposes. Although it was obviously written by a father for his children, it is always difficult to imagine any adult being able to recite the speech and to be able to do so successfully and pull an audience into its power. At best, they might be a pale imitation; at worst, ludicrous. At the same time, if a child, no matter how haltingly, recited those words, there will not be a dry eye in the house. That’s magic.
Yesterday, I was listening to a bunch of music. One of the songs I listened to was Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots).” The song, ostensibly about the Diallo shooting incident, caused a lot of controversy when he introduced it. It’s interesting to see how the song grows and changes as the event that is at the center of the song recedes into history and the song begins to stand on its own. The lyrics are here.
In the version I listened to, the song begins with each of the vocalists in the band – Bruce, Little Steven, Nils, Clarence and Patti – taking a turn singing the line “41 Shots.” The song begins and Bruce, perturbed, asks the crowd for quiet. He then nails the song, capturing something essential. As the song builds, he plays a jaw-dropping guitar solo. As with many of his live performances, the song builds and builds, and could go on forever and it’d be OK with me.
It meant one thing back then – it means other things now. Today is a good day to think about what it means to live in your American skin.