The Daily Illini

MLK Day: For Respect, not Relaxing

By Jessie Webster

Some of my fondest memories from high school involved me, at home, asleep during a school holiday.

As shameful as it is to admit, I circled in my planner every single day I had off, not to observe the significance of Memorial Day or Presidents’ Day, but to get excited for all the extra naptime.

While others may not share my enthusiasm for sleep, I’m willing to bet that most Americans have their own ideal way to spend a national holiday, whether it be catching a movie or taking advantage of significant retail sales.

However, I’m also willing to bet that the one thing most of us aren’t doing is taking a minute to reflect on the significance of the holiday we are supposed to be commemorating.

One national holiday that should be on the forefront of every American’s mind, perhaps now more than any other time since its creation, is Martin Luther King Day.

My alma mater, New Trier High School, is having school this MLK Day because major construction on the building will require that classes be convened for the summer earlier than usual.

But rather than attending regular classes, students will participate in a day-long seminar on racial identity in America. Seminars that students can attend include such topics as “Reconstructing Race” and “How to Dig Deeper Into the Story of MLK, Race and the Continuing Struggle for Civil Rights.”

I am immensely proud of my high school’s attempt to encourage its student body, one that is over eighty percent Caucasian and in which only three percent of students live below the poverty line, to honor Dr. King’s legacy by discussing how those of us with immense privilege in life can use our advantage to help improve the lives of others, rather than hinder them.

Unfortunately, not everyone can take the time on MLK Day to focus on how to improve the lives of others.

According to a recent Bloomberg study, MLK Day currently enjoys far less observance than other, more neutral national holidays such as Labor Day or the Fourth of July. While most public schools are closed for MLK Day, less than two in five American workers receive a paid day off to observe the holiday.

Race relations in this country are still far from improving, and I do not mean to be naive enough as to suggest that conducting dialogue about what it means to be black in this country can eradicate the irreparable damage that has been carried out against African Americans by those in a position of power or privilege.

An August 2015 report from the Washington Post found that black men in the United States are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire, even though they make up just a fraction of the population that whites in this country do.

Faced with statistics such as these, King’s dream for a world in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character seems farther away than ever.

Let’s be the generation that changes that reality.

Dr. King’s legacy is best remembered through discussion and service. At the University, students can commemorate MLK Day by participating in a day of service, which provides individuals the opportunity to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy by helping others.

Visit one of the four multi-cultural centers on campus. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Take the time to watch Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on YouTube, and think about how to fulfill King’s dream: that our nation will one day live up to the promise that “all men are created equal.”

Politicians in this country, now more than at any other time since the Civil Rights era, are feasting on Americans’ vitriolic, irrational fear of each other as a way to keep us apart, rather than working together to make life better for one another.

Whether it be Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall around Mexico, or the 31 governors, including Illinois’ Bruce Rauner, who have pledged to keep Syrian refugees out of their state, America’s status as a beacon of democracy is dimming.

So, rather than spending MLK Day figuring out which school days will be the best for you to go out at night, or calculating the latest possible time you can head to class and still make it on time, try to make a positive difference in your community today. No action is too small; just don’t sleep on the opportunity.

Jessie is a junior in Media.

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