I don’t work on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. A few years ago, I just stopped doing it and decided to take a personal day instead. The federal holiday occasionally falls near my birthday or sometimes, like this year, on my birthday.
It took years for me to arrive at my decision. As a journalist, I attended King events with civil rights leaders for whatever community I was covering at the time. I heard passionate speeches and calls to keep the dream alive. I was reminded, more than once, that I wouldn’t be able to sit leisurely on a park bench if it hadn’t been for all of those who stood up for my rights. They were right, and I started to resent that I couldn't celebrate the holiday like I wanted. A holiday is a day of rest, a time to reflect, and I couldn't do that very well while working.
This year, the holiday will be followed by the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. One day we will celebrate the dreamer, and the next day another significant piece of his vision will come true.
As a young journalist in Montgomery, Alabama, I learned about King and his philosophy from those who had walked beside him and heard the stories of the movement from those who had lived through them. I listened with rapt attention as Johnnie Carr and Coretta Scott King told me about the man who was assassinated before I was born.
I was there, though, in the mid 1990s when the anniversaries of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma-to-Montgomery March drew the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Joseph Lowery back to where it all began.
That’s why I don’t regard King Day as the usual holiday. It’s living history. It’s not like the holidays when I buy clothes on sale, or eat barbecue or hand out presents. I, for one, am glad that the holiday hasn’t been distorted by retailers. Instead it’s a day of reflection, a reminder.
My earliest memory of celebrating King was in 1981. A group of us 10- and 11-year-olds were sitting in music class, where we sang or played instruments. When the music lesson was over, our teacher wheeled out the record player for a little history. If we behaved, she told us, we could listen to some music.
She pulled an album from behind her desk, the one with Stevie Wonder on the front wearing beads on his braids. She pulled the disc from its sleeve and carefully put the needle on the album. Stevie began to sing:
You know it doesn't make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration
“Happy Birthday” was Stevie’s rallying cry to pass legislation making King’s birthday a national holiday. We bobbed our heads, the only sign that we were listening. Talking was not allowed.
Back then, I thought King already had a federal holiday. But that didn’t happen until I was in high school in 1986, when the holiday was officially celebrated. Even then, not all of the states followed suit. New Hampshire was the last state to recognize the holiday and signed on in 1999.
On one Jan. 15, long after Congress passed the law, a group of friends and I gathered at a home in Birmingham. There was a cake and a speech. We lit candles, sang “Happy Birthday” and blew out the candles. I consider it my best King Day yet.
Then again, there’s this year. I will take my daughters, a 3-year-old and a 20-month-old, to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, read Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King to them, and tuck them in knowing more history will unfold tomorrow.
Monique Fields is a writer living in Alabama.