For so many years, I took Martin Luther King Jr. Day off. Like everyone else, I didn’t have to go to work or school, so I made sure to relax. But my mind, much like the post office, wasn’t working that day. It wasn’t until college that I decided to start a tradition of making this holiday a day “on.”
During my first year of college, I took part in my first MLK community service day. The premise was to honor Dr. King’s message of loving your community with service to your neighbors. It was a premise I could get behind, so that Monday morning, I met several fellow students in the lobby of the student center so we could receive the day’s assignment. As it turned out, we would be cleaning up a historic cemetery.
Fun fact: I’m terrified of cemeteries. Human remains, in general. Mummies, zombies, the skull from Hamlet: you name it. I don’t know if I watched one too many episodes of Scooby Doo or Law & Order as a child, but I was wary of even fake skeletons well into my college years.
But to the historic cemetery I went. And it turned out to be one of the most humbling, moving things I have ever done.
My group was tasked with tidying a particularly overgrown part of the cemetery. Compared to other parts of the manicured grounds, this area was embarrassingly unkempt and overgrown. Then we learned that we were tending to the slaves’ part of the cemetery. It pained and angered me that even in death, over a century later, they were treated as lesser beings.
As I pulled away vines and wet leaves, I wondered about the people resting in those graves. What were their daily lives like? Did they hope to see positive change for blacks in America during their lifetimes, much like I do? What did they spend their days thinking about or wishing for? I was so deep in thought that I took a bad step and wound up shin-deep in a grave (which doesn’t sound like much, but if you are still alive and find yourself in a grave at any depth, it’s more than enough).
I volunteered for a few service days after that, but none were as poignant as the first. But that time spent in thought led me to wonder, do we actually observe MLK day? Often we use the long weekend to shop, catch up on sleep or watch television. When we do so, we waste an opportunity to reflect–to engage with the past and think about how it affects the present.
Over the last few years, I haven’t been able observe the holiday with community service. Instead, I started to take time for reflection, perspective and meditation by reading literature from the 60s, watching footage from speeches or just thinking. It’s a deeply personal tradition. Last year, I re-read Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech and cried. It’s so powerful, full of determination, hope and pride. A lot has changed since 1963, but we still have a long way to go towards equality. And while “I Have A Dream” is a gorgeous piece of rhetoric, it’s not the whole story.
Dr. King and his work does not represent the entire Civil Rights Movement. But knowing his story is a great place to start. Learning about Dr. King’s legacy led me to read more about organizations like the >>Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), children like Ruby Bridges (the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South), and first-hand accounts from people who faced harsh discrimination and violence. Every time I do this, I learn something new.
This year, try something different and take the day “on,” even for a few minutes. Donate your time to a community service project or give yourself the experience of re-watching Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Try to dedicate time to teach your children why they’re don’t have to be in school today. If we want change, real and lasting change, Americans of every color need to know our history.
Ashley is a copywriter and stylist, living in Durham, NC.
She is a Bikram yogi, budding feminist, and eyeliner enthusiast.