Recalling the Push for an MLK Holiday

One of the many students who marched on the nation's capitol in 1982 to support making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday recalls that effort.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

In the 1980s, commentator Meri Nana-Ama Danquah marched on the nation's Capitol to urge the government to make Dr. King's birthday a national holiday.

MERI NANA-AMA DANQUAH: In January of 1982, I was 14 years old, midway through my freshman year at Foxcroft - an all-girls boarding school. Ever since I was old enough to sit in the classroom, everything I had ever learned about black American history - which, I have to admit, was very little - had come from short blurbs and minor mentions and outdated textbooks. Footnotes, I guess you could say, to the real stuff, the important information.

At first blush, Foxcroft probably seem like a school that would offer more of the same sort of education. It was about an hour's drive from the nation's Capitol, tucked away on 500 acres in the rolling hills of Virginia - horse country, a place where the black and brown faces were few and far between. Only 10 of the 200 or so students in the school were black, hardly the place where one might expect a young black girl to have her consciousness awakened. But that's exactly what happened to me.

At the morning assembly on January the 15th of that year, the school officials announced that there would be a march on Washington in support of the bill to honor the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by turning his birthday into a federal holiday.

The school will provide a bus - they told us - to the girls who would like to participate. And they were also be excused from classes for the day. Shoot. You didn't have to ask me twice. No classes? I've gone and danced on the moon to get a day off school.

I'm ashamed to say, that was my main reason for signing up. And I started regretting the decision almost immediately after we left that school. It was cold - record-setting-temperatures cold. I mean, keep your butt at home next-to-the-heater cold. Still, over 500,000 people showed up on those streets, determined to make a difference.

They were reciting portions of Dr. King's speeches, singing Stevie Wonder's rendition of "Happy Birthday," and, of course, "We Shall Overcome," the song that became an anthem of the civil rights movement.

By the time the group I was in hit the second block of our walk, I fell right in stride. All of those disembodied facts I had learned about black history suddenly started to have a context to make emotional sense to me to really mean something. It was one of the most extraordinary and impacting experiences of my life.

In 1983, the following year, Congress passed the law making Dr. King's birthday a legal holiday. Now, every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I think back to that march and I get filled with so much pride because I was there to witness the making of that history.

But just as important is the fact that I got there because the people at my school, Foxcroft, proved that you can't be quick to judge by appearances or profiles. What matters is the content of character, for institutions, as well as for individuals. They believed in Dr. King's dream, and did not hesitate to let that be known.

Now that's what I call an education.

CHIDEYA: Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is a writer living in Los Angeles. This is NPR News.

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