Monday, January 21, 2019, marks America’s 34th celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Honoring King with the sacred status of a federal holiday—of which there are only 10, none other named for a 20th-century figure—is a testament to the unifying power of his legacy.
King’s most important work applied America’s Founding ideals to the cause of civil rights. The last best hope for true racial progress, King realized, was solidarity: For people to see and treat one another as equals, they had to feel the tugs of a bond far stronger than either race or politics.
For King, that bond was America.
After all, there are two words in the phrase “civil rights”—and King grasped that both are crucial. Civil rights are about the fair and equal participation of all citizens in the American community. For those rights to have any power, the bonds of that community must be close-knit and resilient.
King’s greatest legacy is helping secure those rights while strengthening our national idea, not undermining it. He understood that so much of our country’s racial history, from the Civil War to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was not a rejection of American values. To the contrary, these episodes were parts of a long struggle to live up to our Founding ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy.
“I criticize America because I love her,” King said in a speech about the Vietnam War, “and because I want to see her to stand as the moral example of the world.”
For those reasons and more, King’s story is worth remembering. President Donald J. Trump wants to ensure that legacy lives on for generations of Americans. Last January, he signed H.R. 267 into law. Named the “Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park Act,” the law redesignates a National Historic Site in Georgia—the state where King was born—as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park.
This year, the President signed a proclamation on January 18 that officially designated the following Monday as the “Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday.”
Conservatives and liberals alike can learn from King’s example. “In the United States of America, every citizen should have the opportunity to build a better and brighter future,” President Trump’s 2019 proclamation reads. “United as one American family, we will not rest — and we will never be satisfied — until the promise of this great Nation is accessible to each American in each new generation.”
The past year has been an especially important one in our work to live up to Dr. King’s dream. As 2018 came to a close, President Trump signed the historic, bipartisan First Step Act into a law. First Step will prepare inmates to successfully rejoin society, and it enacts commonsense reforms that will make our justice system fairer for all Americans.
The premise—and promise—of King’s dream is that we don’t need to replace or transform our Nation’s shared ideals to make our country a better place.
We simply need to live up to them.