Martin Luther King Jr. Day and ‘the Minds and Hearts of Children’
A schoolteacher anticipated in 1979 how creating the holiday would prove meaningful.
[Editor’s note: In 1979—the year Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 50 if he had not been gunned down in 1968—congressional hearings explored whether to create a federal holiday honoring him. Famous witnesses offered glowing encomiums for and harsh criticism of the late civil rights leader. But from today’s vantage, perhaps the most striking testimony came from a third-grade teacher from Indianapolis, Ms. Patricia Brown, who anticipated what the holiday would mean for future generations.]
I AM HAPPY TO BE INVITED HERE today to testify in behalf of the NEA [National Education Association] Black Caucus. In 1968, the NEA adopted a resolution calling for making January 15 a national holiday. At every subsequent representative assembly, it has adopted a similar resolution.
The Black Caucus wholeheartedly supports the efforts on the part of the Congress and the president [Jimmy Carter] to make the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday.
By making January 15 a national holiday, America would honor itself, not Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The holiday would be symbolic of this nation’s ability to turn away from the path toward self-destruction, the process which Dr. King started in the Fifties and early Sixties.
A holiday on January 15, if properly observed, could allow all Americans, white, brown, red, yellow, and black, an opportunity to annually reflect on the progress we have made and to contemplate together those yet unfulfilled “dreams” to measure anew the distance we still have to go before we are indeed “free at last.”
No doubt this committee has heard and will hear much testimony to the fact that Dr. King was not just a great black American, but a great American; not just a great American, but a great person, a great universal spirit spanning oceans and continents, embracing people of all lands, all faiths, and all languages.
And while all that is true, the Black Caucus of the National Education Association would remind you that Dr. King, though universal, is a symbol for the poor, the black, and the downtrodden.
A holiday on the birthdate of the descendant of a former slave would not only commemorate Martin Luther King. It would also honor and thank the millions of persons of African ancestry, whether brought to this country or born in this country, who by the labor of their bodies and brains, with or without compensation, helped to make this nation great.
To the masses of jobless, to those working every day but still living below the poverty line, to the relatively comfortable but yet struggling middle class, the holiday would stand as a beacon of hope and a reminder that we shall yet overcome.
To the powerful and rich of the nation, a holiday on January 15 would say: I am my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. It would serve as a periodic reminder of the promise of our ancestors “that all men are created equal” and that the quest for equality after creation still has not been achieved.
To those born since the heroic deeds in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, St. Augustine, Albany, Cicero, Washington, D.C., and Memphis, to millions of all races yet unborn, a holiday on January 15 would raise questions to be answered: Who was Martin Luther King? What did he do that the greatest nation on earth would set aside a day in his honor? What debt of gratitude is owed him? What can I do to follow in his footsteps? What can I do to be like him?
I submit to you that the most important contribution of this holiday will be in the quality of the answers afforded to these and other questions which arise in the hearts and minds of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. . . .
You know teachers always have to go on and on. If you would allow me to say something out of my eighteen years’ experience as a classroom primary teacher, gentlemen, I could not begin to tell you how important this holiday would be to the minds and hearts of children. It gets to be very weary both for black children, other minorities, and I guess for white children to have to celebrate year after year only those holidays attributed to whites.
We are, as teachers, about the business of building strong self-concepts and strong self-images, and it becomes difficult to do that when there are only those holidays to honor whites.
It is important for all children everywhere to know that there was indeed a man named Martin Luther King and I guess perhaps if it starts coming from the top, it will make our jobs easier. . . .
In our city, teachers have negotiated a contract that will allow us to close down schools on Martin Luther King’s birthday. We also now have a city holiday . . . where everything is closed down. You know, we get questions, like parents really become upset because children are staying home in honor of Martin Luther King and that tells me that we still need to do some educating. I guess we are asking for your help in doing that educating. I guess we are asking for your support in honoring a man who indeed does deserve this honor.
Thank you very much for allowing me this privilege.