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In November I was in Atlanta to appear at the inaugural Letters Festival. My parents flew up to see what my writing thing was all about and during some free time, we took a tour of Atlanta that ended at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
Because this was a site honoring such a significant figure in American history, we expected grandeur. We had just come from the well-appointed Jimmy Carter presidential library and I suspect we thought that Martin Luther King Jr. would be honored in a similar manner.
Inside the museum, we saw the somber sight of the wagon that carried MLK’s coffin during his funeral procession. There was a display representing his time in the Birmingham City Jail and various exhibits documenting the rise of the civil rights movement and this country’s fraught racial history. Let us not speak of the gift shop, which was so shameful it would have been more respectful to shroud the sad space with a dark curtain. We walked across the street to the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where both MLK and his father preached. We sat in the pews where MLK’s congregants once sat and worshipped and for a moment, time stood still. We bowed our heads. We visited the adjacent King Center where MLK and Coretta Scott King lie in rest in the center of a reflecting pool, across from an eternal flame. Then, we left.
Throughout the visit, I kept waiting to experience a profound moment. I wanted to feel like there was a memorial space that could adequately capture Dr. King’s legacy. Memorials are complicated things. They are both physical and emotional spaces. They are objects we not only visit but onto which we can project sorrow, remembrance and even celebration. Later that day, my parents and I couldn’t help but note that the memorials felt rather neglected and anemic, sort of run down. Dr. King deserved more.
I knew about Martin Luther King Jr. growing up but as the child of Haitian parents, I knew far more about Henri Christophe and Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dessalines. I knew that Haiti was the first free black republic in the Western Hemisphere. I knew that the Haitian revolution made slave rebellions here in the United States possible. It’s not that my parents ignored American history. Instead, they understood that the United States was but one country where black people have had to fight for freedom and equality.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a federal holiday when I was twelve years old but the next year, I went to boarding school in New Hampshire, a state that did not recognize the holiday until seven years after I graduated. Around that time, Arizona was also reticent to play nice with history. John McCain voted against the holiday, for one. It was then I began to think about how a legacy is so much more than a holiday. Even though there was opposition to Martin Luther King Day in those years, King’s legacy was not diminished, could not be diminished.
How do we honor greatness? How do we remember and respect the leaders who have made so much possible? Each year now, many people get Martin Luther King Day off. There’s no mail. Classes at schools across the country are cancelled but I am not sure how many students or faculty actually take the time to reflect on the legacy of MLK. There are events honoring Dr. King. We hear the “I Have a Dream” speech, and then we resume our lives. A day ends just as quickly as it begins.
I don’t really celebrate MLK Day, not out of disrespect but because I am, or at least I try to be mindful of his legacy every day. I am reminded of what King made possible when I stand in front of the classroom, often the only black teacher my students have ever had. I am reminded when I read and write. There are few moments in my life where I cannot recognize the imprint of King’s legacy as well as the legacies of Rosa Parks and all those who marched on Washington in 1963 and Thurgood Marshall and the Little Rock Nine and Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins. The list of those whose legacies make my life possible is long and could not possibly be memorialized by a day or a place because they are too grand to be contained.
I haven’t been able to forget the MLK memorial and how underwhelmed I was but I recognize the site’s necessity in the same way I recognize the importance of the holiday. Even though a legacy cannot be contained by such spaces, it is necessary to visibly acknowledge that legacy. At the same time, the older I get, the more I realize that particularly when it comes to civil rights we are, at our best, memorials ourselves.