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Opinion: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not an expendable holiday

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day the nation pauses in remembrance of the civil rights leader who was assassinated for his attempts to secure rights for Black Americans.

But at Belmont University, that pause won’t happen this year for reasons out of the students’ and faculty’s control.

Due to the nature of the pandemic, the Belmont administration condensed the academic calendar, eliminating breaks and days off for students and professors. One of those days off lost is MLK Day, and instead of a pause in remembrance, students will be off to class as though it’s just another normal day.

That’s profoundly disappointing.

The issue in Belmont’s decision to still schedule classes is that it is an insult to both the historical civil rights leader and all those who fought to commemorate his work on the third Monday of every January.

The history and meaning behind the day are far deeper than what meets the eye.

Establishing the national holiday was an extensive process that began four days after King was assassinated in 1968. A Democratic congressman from Michigan, John Conyers, introduced legislation for a federal holiday on April 8, 1968, according to The King Center.

The majority of people in Congress ignored his legislation, but as one of the few Black congressmen, Conyers remained undaunted in his pursuit of national commemoration for King.

For the next 15 years, Conyers enlisted the help of the Congressional Black Caucus. And each year the organization helped him introduce the bill to congress. However, every single attempt to legitimize his bill failed over that 15-year period, according to USA Today.

It wasn’t until 1983 — and 6 million signatures — that things finally changed. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill designating the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Though this was seen as a victory, it wasn’t the end of the fight. Several southern states combined the celebration of King with former Confederate general Robert E. Lee. And it took until the year 2000 for every state in America to recognize the day as a true holiday. The last states to honor MLK day were New Hampshire, Utah and South Carolina, according to UPI.

For years Belmont did honor the holiday on the day. And as it stands now, the University is offering a commemorative week. However, a week of optional events for students and faculty can’t replace the necessity of pausing in remembrance for the activist that dared to say Black people ought to be free.

A day designated to commemorate justice is undermined in the name of education. A day of national remembrance for the work of King in his non-violent movement now becomes another day of the week for everyone attending or working at Belmont.

It cost King his life to say Black people should be treated equally. It took 32 years for America to validate the work of the great civil rights leader. And though the semester may carry on with its condensed schedule, some things are just more important than continuing business as usual.

This article written by Ian Kayanja.

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