Why we dedicate a national holiday to a Christian pastor

Special to The Mountaineer
By Richard Ploch | Jan 15, 2014
Photo by: File photo

When our college chaplain gathered us for a worship service on the day after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis  April 4, 1968, we ended with a packed auditorium of students and faculty joining in We Shall Overcome but found it hard to sing through tears. Of the assassinations of those years, the killing of King was the least surprising yet the most emotional.

The evening before, a student told me of the death while I read in the college library and I just nodded my head. We all knew he risked his life with meager security protection and that his death was likely. He was not the lone martyr, though. Black children and men and women of both races were murdered in the south for seeking what the Constitution promised. Between 1954 and 1968, 40 others were murdered by white hatred of those seeking justice. Rev. King had stepped into a stream that already flowed with freedom rides on Greyhound buses, sit-ins at lunch counters in Greensboro, Raleigh, and Durham, and attempts to register to vote throughout the South.

“It is in these saints in ordinary walks of life,” King said, “that the true spirit of democracy finds its most profound and abiding expression.”

He loved his country; he refused to accept an America where people were judged by skin tone; and he preached Jesus Christ as his savior.

Two years before his death at the age of 39, I heard the Rev. King preach in his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit and again to a gathering of black Atlanta clergy after which I briefly met him. That is what made his death more personal. He was my twentieth century hero. While millions were robbed of freedom behind the Iron Curtain of communism abroad, he stood for law abiding democracy in our country and through his willingness to follow Jesus’ teachings at the risk of his life, he made God’s love for all children visible.

From 1957 until his death, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there were people treated unfairly by their neighbors. In his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he said that we must overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression in return. “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

And so, a day of remembrance was signed into law in 1983 to be observed the third Monday of January in honor of his Jan. 15 birthday. Not everyone understood. Sadly, Senators Jesse Helms and John Porter East, both North Carolina Republicans, led opposition to the bills brought to Congress because they did not think him important enough to receive such an honor and the cost of another federal holiday would be too high, but there was a new spirit in the country that understood that the Rev. King’s disciplined non-violent response to violence was at the heart of Christ’s teachings.

Not until 2000 was the holiday acknowledged in some manner by all states. I believe that King would say that this day does not honor his life alone. The third Monday of January is a time to celebrate all those who guided this nation to a deeper understanding of the importance of democracy becoming real for all Americans. It honors everyone who worked for the Rev. King’s dream, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Amos, when justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Locally, a pride march from the Haywood County Courthouse to the Pigeon Community Center begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, a commemorative worship service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19 at Long's Chapel United Methodist Church, and the annual prayer breakfast begins at 8 a.m. Monday Jan. 20 at Lambuth Inn dining room at Lake Junaluska. For more information, call Tammy McDowell at 215-0296 or Rocky Tucker at 246-2588, Ann McAdams at 648-3363, Lunia Williams at 648-5471, Christiana Gibson at 648-1233 or Agnes Bryson at 456-6816. Tickets for the breakfast may also be purchased at the Lake Junaluska Administration Building.