The holiday honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. carries with it a load of convoluted messaging. When his words are taken out of context, they hold the potential to be a tool for complicity in acts of violence and discrimination — which take a heavy toll even now, 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination.
After one of the toughest years of his life, Christopher Jemison, a junior, used the day to reflect on the way we interpret Dr. King’s teachings of love, kindness and acceptance. He has heard countless iterations of those words in his lifetime.
While kindness holds a lot of meaning to Jemison, and while love has brought him out of hard times, he thinks it is important to remember that these messages have not driven away the injustices that black Americans face. Jemison’s grandparents struggled and fought during Dr. King’s time, and their fight is still a fight, he said.
“I think so often, we’re so quick to – when we think of Dr. King – choose those attributes of him to justify us not actually moving the needle,” Jemison said.
In his speech at the Associated Student Government’s Noon-Day Vigil, Jemison focused on the dangers of inaction. He wanted to remind his peers that love without corresponding action does not honor Dr. King’s fight or his legacy.
“Dr. King understood that in his day, there were allies and people that said that they (honored) his message of love and kindness and all of these things, but yet they just stood by and loved from afar,” Jemison said. “And I think that’s the most dangerous thing because we just get caught up in repeating history and not even realizing that we’re contributing to the trouble, the pain, the neglect.”
Dr. King’s words are known to all, but many do not realize the extent of the struggles he faced and how he was regarded by some.
“I think we often look back at him with rose-colored glasses,” said Anthony DiNicola, Inclusion Liaison for the Office of the Chancellor. “What typically happens is people put a bunch of quotations out there and we don’t think of him in the context of that day.”
King was not always a beloved character by all, DiNicola said.
“He was striving for us to embrace the hard work that it takes to make our nation equitable and inclusive and value the diversity of our country and our democracy,” DiNicola said.
For DiNicola, the holiday is a chance to reflect on and study Dr. King’s words, he said.
DiNicola, who gave the keynote address in the Noon-Day Vigil, spent his childhood waking up early on MLK Day, donning a suit and tie, before attending breakfasts and sermons with his grandfather, he said.
“My grandfather taught me how to tie a tie on those (Martin Luther King Jr.) days,” DiNicola said. “It is the strange little tidbits that stand out to me, but (they) were so important because that day was so important to him. For him to take that time to focus on a man who paved the way, that broke down barriers, so that a man like him could have the successes that he had. That would prepare his family, and eventually me, to have the successes that I have.”
DiNicola spent the day reflecting on Dr. King’s words in a way he had not before, he said.
“It was really a day for me to think about service in another way,” DiNicola said.
DiNicola took the day as an opportunity to watch YouTube videos, read books and look at articles from people that are outside of his identity, he said.
The holiday is one of peace for JaCoby Hurst, a senior who worked behind-the-scenes for the vigil video. Hurst decided to take a day off from posting on social media and focus on bettering himself, using the holiday as an opportunity to self-reflect, he said.
“I took MLK Day as a day of peace for myself and self-reflection,” Hurst said. “I post stuff every day. I talk about these issues every day.”
Hurst said he thinks Dr. King’s legacy should not be celebrated only one day a year and that people should work for change and equality all year long.
“We shouldn’t just hold MLK Day as a single day,” Hurst said. “We should come together for unity. We should push and strive for unity every single day, especially with everything going on in America,” Hurst said.