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Volume 8, Issue 3                                    University of Houston

Holiday more than just time off

James Davis
Breaking News

Here's a question: What will happen this Monday?

    • A federal holiday
    • A day off school for students nationwide
    • The Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
    • All of the above
The answer, of course, is D, which makes me a little uneasy. A through D are factual statements, but isn't C the only answer that should matter at all? The inception of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1986 certainly stood as a bold recognition of the civil rights movement, but how much do Americans consider the actual substance of the holiday over the benefits it affords them?

If you want an answer, look no further than our friend, Columbus Day. Since 1971, this second Monday of every October has dignified the legacy of Christopher Columbus, a man who can, at best, be described as a confused navigator and at worst a purveyor of genocide. There has been opposition to the holiday since its inception, alternative celebrations take place nationwide each year and different names have been suggested, but sure enough, 35 years later, the U.S. government still celebrates Columbus Day.

Why is this? Is it because of Americans' massive support for Christopher Columbus? Is it because it would be simply too difficult to think of a different, less caustic name? My suspicion is that the majority of Americans just don't care enough to change it. There might be more active resistance if, say, they printed Columbus' portrait on our money, but Columbus Day is just tiny script in the second column of a calendar, a day when we don't get our mail.

Then, on the other side of the human rights spectrum, we have Dr. King, sharing real estate in your day planner with good ol' Chris. The intentions behind the inception of either holiday aren't really in question. The point is this: Naming a holiday after a person or cause is ultimately dismissive. Think of Labor Day. I don't have the data to prove this, but my guess is that most Americans don't take Labor Day to honor the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or to thank Teddy Roosevelt for his trust-busting. How many of us know when Labor Day was first recognized by the U.S. government (1894)? Or even the exact date it's celebrated (the first Monday of September), for that matter?

My fear is that Dr. King will suffer the same fate: obscurity. It may sound paradoxical, but the efforts of this man are far too important for him to be mythologized. Unlike Columbus Day, Dr. King's birthday is a federal holiday for a good reason.

So take time this Monday to, even briefly, think about this man's life. Read "Letter from Birmingham Jail." For that matter, just consider the fact that one of history's most ardent advocates of peace was imprisoned for the nonviolent protest for human rights. While the holiday is certainly cause for celebration, it's just as much a commemoration of tragedy, a much-needed reminder that human beings are violently and instinctively opposed to change.

James Davis, an opinion columnist for Breaking News, 
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