When I was a kid there was no such thing as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s now a federal holiday on the third Monday of January each year, commemorating Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, 1929. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983 and it was first observed three years later, in 1986. Only two other people have national holidays in the United States honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.
As a lifelong Lutheran I’ve always found it interesting that both Dr. King and his father shared their name with another guy named Martin Luther. Numerous points of comparison could be noted between the man who precipitated the Reformation almost 497 years ago and the man who played a significant role in catalyzing racial equality in America. Succinctly and simplistically stated, both men saw things as they were and acted courageously to make them better.
From my younger days I vividly recall the visual reminders of absolute segregation:
- People with darker complexion than the rest of us were not allowed to ride anywhere other than the back of the bus.
- They were forbidden to enter public restaurants and stores.
- In stores and other public places there were three restrooms: Women, Men, Colored.
- “Colored people” could not attend our schools. Not one African-American student or faculty member was on campus at Houston’s Bellaire High School or at Texas A&M.
- While there were African-American pastors in the LCMS, we had none in my 1970 Concordia Theological Seminary graduating class in Springfield, Ill. I perceive and believe that was the result of a set of factors quite different from absolute segregation.
My 1964 college graduation coincided with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and preceded Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Since that time, slowly but surely, racial integration in America has progressed to where it is today. While racial prejudice still exists in many forms, I thank God that for most Americans racial equality has become a way of life.
Sadly, that cannot be said universally. In many countries of the world racial prejudice still rears its ugly head. It manifests itself in various ways, including the same kind of violence that took the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over 45 years ago. Lord, have mercy!
St. Paul had it right when he wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NIV)