I was 12 years old when Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday. I grew up in the American South with a lot of kind, generous but sometimes confused people. I remember feeling frustrated by my conversations with people I respect who seemed to resent the new holiday and wondered why we celebrate this one man, Martin Luther King, Jr, with a day of federal rest yet do not honor our presidents in the same way. I was frustrated then because I didn’t have the words to answer their question.
Twenty-eight years later, I have those words.
My country is addicted to the idea of our presidents as essential leaders. Every four years, we cast our ballots in hope, whether voiced or silent, that we are electing a uniquely gifted person who can lead us (all of us) into our better future.
We expect too much of this person. We make our president too important, and, inevitably, we are disappointed when our unrealistic hopes are dashed. We are angry when our president turns out to have too small a vision or lacks the will to break those things we believe ought to be broken.
I have come to understand Martin Luther King Day as a day to reflect on leadership. Not power. Not prestige. I think about leadership, the kind Martin Luther King, Jr. showed more than 50 years ago. It is the kind showed by millions of others right now, today. We just don’t have a name for it.
Authentic leaders give people a voice. They voice the shared thoughts of people who cannot be heard. They articulate the unexpressed aspirations of people who cannot place the stuff of their own heart into words. They simplify complexity. They make the impossible seem attainable. They declare what others secretly hope to be true. They create impatience where complacency has become harmful. Authentic leaders help people recognize and overcome barriers to their own self-interest. Authentic leaders inspire action. They recognize and develop the natural energies of a shared ideal. They shape ambitions and catalyze dreams.
And then, they step aside so many hands can get to work.
There are a few presidents who exhibit these qualities, but there are many, many regular people who lead this way every day.
And so, Martin Luther King Day, for me, is not a celebration of just one man and the remarkable things he was able to achieve. Martin Luther King Day is a call to action more than a memorial. It is a reminder that this country is still being built and the building requires many hands. We aren’t finished.
We do need good presidents. We deserve better senators and representatives. And yet, our country is not made by them. Our future does not belong to them. We make our country, every day. America is its people. This, I think, is an idea worth a federal holiday.