Since 1986, the U.S. federal government has observed a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist whose nonviolent message and words of hope helped to create a vision for a future of racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr. also advocated for social change and justice, and a great number of people list him among their heroes. In 2011, the Martin Luther King Memorial monument was erected on the Washington National Mall.
Since their establishment, some have wondered: does a holiday or a monument honor King’s legacy, or undermine his message by normalizing it? And just how do people identify heroes?
A study in heroes
If you are asked to name your hero, you are likely to name not a person who exemplifies heroism, but an idol, according to recent studies done by Professor Scott Allison of the University of Richmond. The question evokes a personal preference – wish fulfillment. When people are asked to name some heroes, removing the personal element, some of the top three are Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., three visionaries who advocated nonviolent social change.
Peter A. Georgescu, writing in Huffington Post in a January 6, 2013 article “Heroes Aren’t Just Idols,” discussed Allison’s work, writing, “In my view, an idol can inspire you to do something exceptional or creative, yet a hero can teach what it means to choose the good through self-sacrifice…. what really counts is how a hero’s example of selflessness becomes an enduring model for a way of life, to many other people.”
Allison lists eight traits that heroes have, called “the Great Eight,” which include:
An interesting point of Allison’s studies are that some of these character traits are found equally in villains or criminals – only heroes, however, are selfless and inspiring.
The need for social change
Recognizing those selfless and inspiring qualities heroes represent is one thing; emulating them is another. Also writing for the Huffington Post, Father Paul Mayer complained that by honoring King’s life and message with a holiday and a memorial, people have given themselves an excuse to ignore the call to action King preached. In his January 14, 2013 article, “A New Climate Vision on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday,” Mayer described how King also criticized America’s four great dangers: “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism.” Mayer went on to say, “In fact, King’s analysis of our society offers one of the toughest critiques of capitalism, the military-industrial complex and the unequal distribution of our wealth between the 99 percent and the 1 percent.”
Rather than merely paying lip service to King’s message, some groups are working to imitate King’s focus on the moral issues of the day. According to Mayer, the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate group observed Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday by hosting a “Pray-in for the Climate” outside the White House. The group includes Buddhists, Evangelical Christians, Catholics, Moslems, Jews and Hindus, among others. As Mayer explained, “They have concluded that, were he still alive today, he would join them in declaring that climate change is one of the greatest moral issues of our time.”
Other groups focus on King’s call to serve others. The Corporation for National and Community Service, along with the federal government, has emphasized that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not a day off, but a day on — a day to volunteer and help others. The 2012 volunteer turn out for the Annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service topped 100,000 on 1,500 projects. Smaller groups, such as college sororities or student organizations, also use the holiday to promote volunteerism in their communities.
Touched by a monument
While Mayer says that monuments and holidays allow individuals to “receive a dispensation” from the real work of making King’s vision a reality, others have been greatly touched and inspired by those concrete memorials. In a January 16, 2012 article in the Florida Times Union, “Martin Luther King Jr. Day; A Monumental Experience,” a reporter recorded the thoughts and feelings of people who had been to see the monument on the National Mall.
For some, the monument remains a call to action. As Anita Shepherd wrote, “I found myself choked with emotions and humbled at the opportunity to share in the experience and the moment with its historical significance. America selected its first black president and built the first memorial to a person of color on the National Mall. The collective pride of the people in their accomplishment and their leaders was marked with respect. I am a stronger and better person for the service of my country and reminded of the greatness and power of our collective actions.”
For more information on social justice, visit Questia’s topic page on human and civil rights.