Of the dozen official national holidays observed in the U.S. each year, the one being celebrated Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — is the most relevant to today’s big national conversations. From continuing police reform efforts to the teaching of racial issues in schools to the voting-rights battle currently roiling Congress, reminders abound that King’s dream of an America that is just, fair and tolerant in its treatment of all Americans is still a work in progress.
King set the course for America’s racial evolution in the second half of the last century by highlighting racial injustice while eloquently presenting the case for civil rights to the nation. He won not only sweeping changes in the law — most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he called a “second emancipation” — but also in the attitudes of white America. That he spurred these tectonic changes while rejecting violent revolution, embracing instead an ethos of non-violent protest, is further credit to one of the most transformative Americans who has ever lived.
Nowhere is the urgency of King’s unfinished work more clear than in today’s debate over school curriculums. Usually referenced under the inaccurate catchall of “critical race theory,” it has become code for a conservative campaign to scrub discussion of race — and America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination — from the classroom. Some purveyors even quote King in their cause, twisting his famous call to judge people by their character rather than color as being somehow supportive of a gag order on teachers.