Florida State football's post of MLK wearing an FSU-branded glove, imposed over the text "Do Something"

The Indignities Suffered by MLK Day

Even in death, states disrespect the Reverend Doctor.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created as a federal holiday by Congress in 1986. The holiday was proposed in 1968 by Representative John Conyers, fell five House of Representatives votes short of approval in 1979 despite support from President Jimmy Carter, and was recognized by 17 different states at the time it was passed into federal law. However, the holiday did not achieve recognition in every state until 2000, some 42 years after it was first proposed. 

But if every state recognizes MLK Day as a federal and state holiday, if the vast majority of corporations give the third Monday in January as a day off, if banks and the stock market are closed, what indignities could the holiday suffer?

First, the holiday has fallen prey to the horrific trend of inappropriate Brand Tweets.

During my brief interlude as a social media professional, I paid special attention to the cringey posts shared by brands, making note of what not to do with my own work. Brand Tweets on MLK Day are often tastelessly looking to cash in on the legacy of one of the greatest civil rights leaders in history to sell their product.

For example, this now deleted tweet from Florida State football, where they inexplicably decided to put their Seminole glove on King, shocked fellow college athletics social managers.

There was this post from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who chose to honor the plight of MLK and abused animals in the same breath.

The year 2014 also saw a truly bizarre tweet from the sleep-aid brand ZzzQuil, whose brand manager also attempted to double-down and defend their post in the replies.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, who under leader J. Edgar Hoover subjected King to more than ten years of surveillance as part of their infamous COINTELPRO initiative, should probably stay silent on MLK Day. 

But the most baffling instance of Brand Tweeting on MLK Day that I could find was from former Republican Congressman Steve King, who lost his 2020 primary after defending white supremacy.

Unfortunately, inappropriate Brand Tweets are a problem not limited to MLK Day – just ask all of the brands that have felt compelled to post tasteless ad/memorial combos on September 11th.

But the holiday also suffers a second type of injustice unique to MLK Day in its disrespect. In six states around the country, MLK Day is packaged with another memorial holiday, or has had its name changed so as to distance the holiday from King’s contributions to the civil rights movement.

Robert E. Lee Day

In Alabama and Mississippi, yesterday was known not as Martin Luther King Day but as Martin Luther King – Robert E. Lee Day. The United States Civil War, in which Lee was a general for the Confederacy, ended almost 156 years ago. The concept of merging a celebration of the icon of Black civil rights with the “celebration” of a man who led an armed rebellion over the right to keep Black people enslaved is so farcical that it feels like a comedy skit gone wrong, yet for two states, that is exactly what transpires every year.

Arkansas only ended its practice of combining the holidays in 2017, and until 2000, Virginia went further, celebrating King-Lee-Jackson (for Confederate general Stonewall Jackson) every January. Another practice that ended in 2000 was requiring state workers to choose between MLK Day or three official Confederate holidays for their day off. This indignity was practiced in South Carolina. 

John Browning Day

In 2010, Utah introduced legislation to further designate MLK Day as John Browning Day. Browning is the founder of the Browning Arms Company, one of the most prolific firearm companies in the world. King was assassinated by a man with a gun. When asked about this apparent contradiction, Utah state senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins responded “Guns keep peace”. Irony is not Utah’s strong suit.

After pressure from civil rights groups, the Utah legislature amended their proposal, instead designating January 24th as John Browning Day.

Generic “Civil Rights Day”

Idaho was the 47th state to officially acknowledge MLK Day as a state holiday. In 1990, the state officially created Martin Luther King – Idaho Civil Rights Day. With an all-time poorly aged (and racist) take, state representative Ron Crane proposed honoring Bill Cosby instead of King. Another of Crane’s esteemed colleagues, Emerson Smock, complained that “A Black holiday is what they’re wanting.”

Wyoming, refusing to be outdone by its Rocky Mountain compatriots, has officially named the holiday Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day. 

New Hampshire, the last state to recognize MLK Day, called their holiday simply Civil Rights Day until 2000.

While at face value, none of these examples seem as problematic as what occurs in Utah, Mississippi, or Alabama, by subtly distancing the idea of civil rights from a leader like King, this group of states broadcasts the message that civil rights happened spontaneously, when in reality, men and women like King sacrificed their lives to bring about legal equality.

King deserves a day to himself for Americans to reflect and learn about how the civil rights we currently enjoy were signed into law, and about how they can help establish the civil rights we as a society need for the future.

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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