MLK Didn’t Want a Holiday

jami floyd
5 min readJan 15, 2024

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Not As Much As He Wanted You To Vote

So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself, I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King was a man of action. He cared little for material goods (as his wife Coretta often noted) and had little time for laughter, barbeque, or watching sports. Spending this MLK Day holiday shopping or taking in a game ( Clarence Jones, former personal counsel, advisor, draft speech writer, and friend to Dr. King is being honored at today’s Knick’s game) is fine.

But, Dr. King would have preferred we honor him with the vote.

LEGACY OF OPTIMISM

I was born into an age of American optimism that Dr. King delivered to my people and the nation.

Millions of Americans, from all walks of life, marched on Washington to peacefully protest for Jobs and Freedom. They heard Martin Luther King’s soaring voice proclaim his Dream that “little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He was talking about little children like me.

Recognizing the power of this movement that looked to future generations by demanding America leave the worst of its past behind and rise to its principles of Liberty and Justice for All, President John F. Kennedy welcomed Dr. King and other leaders of the March on Washington to the Oval Office in August 1963.

By the end of that year, Kennedy lay dead, felled by an assassin's “single bullet.” The country reeled amidst conspiracy theories about who had killed the young president and why, protests over civil rights and an escalating war in Vietnam, and the Sunday bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four little girls. Dr. King had one Dream for America’s children. The Ku Klux Klan had quite another: a nightmare of violence, subjugation, and perennial denial of our civil and human rights.

Dr. King’s hope for a better America rang through the despair.

“They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity,” Dr. King eulogized the four little girls. This was a crusade. A struggle. The sacrifices were many, but the prize would be freedom.

I was born exactly one year later. And Dr. King had been right. Again. From the unwitting sacrifice of these children came tremendous progress.

Amid continuing national atrocities like the Birmingham Church bombing, in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson signed into law The Civil Rights Act of 1964 to guarantee equal treatment of every American regardless of race.

WITH THE VOTE

But Dr. King could see the real power lay with the vote.

With the vote, Black people could sit on juries and school boards. With the vote, they could elect the sheriff and local prosecutor. With the vote, Black people could send representatives to their statehouses and even to Congress. White supremacists knew it too. Dr. King’s vision became dangerous in the power it threatened to give to Black Americans.

He pressed on. He was repeatedly arrested; he wrote a letter from a Birmingham jail that became a clarion call for justice; he marched on Selma; he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Using his moral and political gravitas, Dr. King led the push for a Voting Rights Act. For 100 years, the Fifteenth Amendment had guaranteed The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. But, it wasn’t enough to overcome pervasive racial discrimination in registration and voting, especially in the South, which continued for a century after the Civil War. Congress finally recognized what Dr. King knew. Federal action was necessary to protect voting rights for African Americans. President Lyndon Johnson signed The Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law that August.

Dr. King called the day “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.” But no one knew better than MLK that the fight was far from over.

This year, we honor Dr. King’s birthday and legacy at the same time we are heading into a presidential election year.

YET OUR VOTING RIGHTS ARE UNDER SIEGE.

At least 40 states have passed new voting laws before the 2024 election (according to the Brennan Center which tracks voting laws nationwide).
At least 14 states have made it harder to vote, especially for people of color, young voters, people with disabilities, and other traditionally disenfranchised communities.

This is no different from when Dr. King was fighting for our right to vote. The people behind these laws are betting against us. Their cynicism dares to take on Dr. King’s optimism. They do not have the public support they need to win, so they seek to circumvent the process, twisting the laws to their benefit. They seek to manipulate the system just enough to win at the margins of democracy. It’s a power grab. From the masses.

But their cynical efforts to undermine Dr. King’s vision will fail if we vote.

DON’T X. VOTE

Before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King commended the Fifteenth Amendment, the Voting Rights Act, and the many cases litigated by the LDF that made great strides “in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote.”

Still, he warned that the ballot can only be an effective tool for social change if voters use it.

Had he been asked, Martin Luther King would likely have said he would rather Election Day be a holiday than his birthday. But here we are.

So let’s honor Dr. King’s memory with more than a post or a Tweet (X) or a visit to a shop or time spent watching a game. Let’s honor Dr. King on Election Day.

With the vote.

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jami floyd

Civil Rights Journalist. Decoder of Law. Social: @jamifloyd. Website: jamifloyd.com.