Why I Will Never, Ever Work on MLK Day
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

Why I Will Never, Ever Work on MLK Day

No matter what the workplace policy, I’ll be off somewhere lounging, celebrating an icon

A federal holiday is upon us, and there’s a good chance someone in your workplace is woefully unaware. (Is it you?)

For as long as I’ve been in corporate America, without fail, a co-worker proves themselves clueless at some point in the second week of January. “Hey, do we have next Monday off?” someone asks, followed by the inevitable response: “What’s next Monday?” There’s always one.

Me? I keep the holiday celebrating the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. circled on my desk calendar and fully booked in my iCal. So it always surprises me when fully grown adults annually forget the holiday—or maybe “disregard” is a better word. I’ve worked at some jobs that have observed the date and others that haven’t. Whatever the case, my employers have come to realize that, either way, in the words of Magic, “I’m not gon’ be here.”

The very fact that MLK Day tends to slip folks’ minds is a testament to its disrespectful history. Some states recognized it long before President Reagan signed it into law as a federal holiday in 1983 (Illinois was the first to do so in 1973). For South Carolina, the last state to officially recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that acknowledgement didn’t come until 2000. This is all relevant, as states control which days are recognized as paid holidays. And because America is a capitalist society, nothing is truly official until we see where the money resides. (Case in point: Arizona didn’t recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday until after the NFL decided to take away the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix. Best believe Chuck D had something to say about it.) The disrespect continues to this day: According to a 2019 Bloomberg Law Survey, only 45 percent of U.S. companies give employees a paid day off.

I keep MLK Day circled on my desk calendar and fully booked in my iCal. So it always surprises me when fully grown adults annually forget the holiday — or maybe “disregard” is a better word.

For me, celebrating MLK Day isn’t optional — especially when there are companies out there that still shut down for Columbus Day. I take it off every year because I truly believe the way we treat this day reflects how we feel about our own history. Sure, there are some armchair revolutionaries who will dismiss the holiday, buying into the American sterilization of King’s legacy that suggests he wasn’t radical enough. “He wasn’t no Malcolm X,” they say, as if we’re debating Biggie and Pac. I usually don’t engage with such foolish discourse because unlike my kinfolk who say such idiotic things, I didn’t stop reading books about our people after chapter six of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I’d be lying if I said I have some elaborate way of commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day beyond not going to work. Even though the day eventually became recognized as a day of service, due to the work of the late, great congressman John Lewis (and United States Senator Harris Wofford, who co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act), I skip the volunteer work — there are 364 other perfectly good days for that.

The best thing I can do on MLK Day is rest. I don’t check my corporate email or do some work to “get ahead” for the week. I just chill, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should’ve been able to do but couldn’t because racism doesn’t allow us to relax. And even though this country is still racist, taking off today is my contribution to changing that, albeit symbolic. I have a dream that one day, the third Monday of January specifically, everyone will celebrate this day with the joy and respect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deserves.

But if they want to tell me that, they’ll have to wait until Tuesday.

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