Thoughts on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee, two extraordinary individuals with radically different viewpoints whose birthdays we celebrate on the same day – especially in the Deep South – even though the actual birthdays fall on two different days.

Whichever birthday you celebrated Monday, Jan. 20, I hope you had a good day.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday was celebrated via federal holiday.

His actual birthday, of course, was Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta. So why celebrate it on the 20th?

The short answer: So lots of folks could have the day off.

To explain: A bill called the Uniform Monday Holiday Act guarantees us federal holidays that fall on a Monday. It was signed into law in 1968 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. The bill mandated that federal holidays, including Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and President’s Day, would be observed on Mondays, to give federal employees guaranteed long weekends to better enjoy time with family and friends.

In reality, many of us probably use the long weekends these days to sleep in or goof off one way or another, but the original intent is certainly thoughtful.

Robert E. Lee Day, also called Lee’s Birthday, is a public holiday commemorating the birth of Robert E.Lee, observed each year on the third Monday in January.

Lee’s actual Jan. 19 birthdate is a legal holiday in the Florida statute books. Robert E. Lee’s birthday, celebrated on the 20th, is a state holiday in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia, but it is not observed as an official holiday in all 50 states.

On a more thoughtful note…

Dr. King – as with each of us – was far from perfect. Like all of us, he had his shortcomings. Still, he deserves national recognition from all people – black, white, red, and brown – for what he did.

He dreamed of a better world – one that was good and just and right – and took action to make that dream a reality. He believed passionately in the power of every individual to make a difference, especially young people. He called for America to live out the true meaning of its creed, as he said in his “I have a dream” speech.

In the segregated South, the white power structure felt threatened by Dr. King, whom many in the structure saw as a rabble-rouser. The 1960s were violent, bloody times in Mississippi. Some civil rights workers paid with their lives, and paid in this state. The trio of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered just south of us in Philadelphia, and buried in an earthen dam. Medgar Evers was shot to death from ambush in this state.

Dr. King paid a high price for his beliefs – second-class citizenship, beatings, jailings, and an officially sanctioned whispering campaign against him. Ultimately, he too died for what he believed in, assassinated by a sniper in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

King’s efforts ultimately prevailed, however, despite his death. Those efforts helped cause the collapse of legal segregation, as justly it should have, and consigned it to the ashheap of history.

Perhaps because of that many whites, then as well as today, still don’t understand that, ironically, Dr. King may have been their best friend.

When many blacks called for violent rebellion and revolution, Dr. King directed that anger into a non-violent push for full equality in the American system. When many preached violence, Dr. King advocated love for his enemies, and a reconciliation of the races.

Dr. King’s influence had faded in the last few years of his life, because many black leaders viewed him as too soft.

Still, his belief in social Christian ethics – that all races are under the common fatherhood of God – may have saved this country, including Chickasaw County, from still more violent and prolonged racial strife.

All people created equal under God, liberty and justice for all as a birthright of every human being – haven’t we heard these words before?

As a matter of fact, we have – they’re echoes down through the centuries from the Founding Fathers, reflected in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Sadly, although we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go to bring Dr. King’s dream to reality.

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, however, and continues toward its goal one step at a time. Each of us should do what he can, each day, to bring that dream to reality.

All of us are indebted to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for helping move America toward what it should be, and can be. By his efforts, Dr. King helped prevent what could have been a far longer and more divisive chapter in this nation’s history.

“I have a dream.” Dr. King’s dream should be our dream, and we should work as hard as he did to bring it to reality.

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