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Class on MLK Day: What message is the Iowa City Community School District sending?


Citizens showed their support for the holiday with "Honor MLK" signs. -- photo by Rachel Jessen
At a December School Board meeting, citizens showed their support for the holiday with “Honor MLK” signs. — photo by Rachel Jessen

A thought experiment. Imagine for a moment what would happen if Iowa Citians read the following in the Daily Iowan:

While many community members expressed they wanted the day off to celebrate and honor [Thanksgiving], [the board president] said she is not confident that all students and their families celebrate the holiday. She noted that some students’ parents have to work, therefore the children might be left unattended during the holiday.

For the currently scheduled school day, the district has planned a plethora of activities to encourage recognition for [Thanksgiving] among students such as assemblies and service-opportunity fairs during [the holiday].

Because these events have already been scheduled, the board worried that moving them would cause issues.

The main issue board members found was finding a day to hold school if classes were canceled on the holiday. Board members had concerns about cutting into graduation and ensuring Carver Hawkeye Arena could hold the ceremony if the time were to change.

 
I’ve chosen Thanksgiving advisedly in repurposing this Dec. 11, 2013 news story on the Iowa City schools’ decision to hold classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I am a Canadian immigrant, and hold dual citizenship. We moved to the United States in 1959, as the civil rights movement was beginning to seep into the consciousness of mainstream white America. As a five-year-old, I noticed Houston’s segregation long before I realized that people in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving a month later than people in Canada do. My first political act, when I was nine, was to write a letter to President Kennedy asking him why racism was so strong in the United States.

To someone my age, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. has to do with the courage and suffering of black America over hundreds of years, from slavery to Reconstruction to the Great Migration to the Civil Rights era to the first African American presidency. His day acknowledges and honors African Americans who, from the start, stood up and said, “We are people and we demand our rightful place.” It honors Americans of all races who worked and sweated and shed blood to make things a little more just.

When the MLK federal holiday was first proposed in 1979, I was ambivalent about it, since while he was alive, the US federal government tapped his phones, slandered his name and opposed his efforts, not only with respect to civil rights but also with respect to economic justice and the war in Vietnam. The notion that the government of the United States led by a white conservative president (by 1983, when it was signed into law) would honor someone that a white conservative had assassinated a decade before seemed obscene to me.

But then the opponents of the MLK Day came out of the woodwork. Jesse Helms filibustered the bill, having earlier articulated the segregationist party line, “Dr. King’s outfit … is heavily laden at the top with leaders of proven records of communism, socialism and sex perversion, as well as other curious behavior.” The vile language around King and the movement he came to signify convinced me that the day was important, not because of the imperfect man it honored, or the sanitized secular saint he’s been turned into, but because the United States can be a better place than his enemies imagine or desire.

The Iowa City Community School District would never schedule class for Thanksgiving. It would be—literally—unthinkable. But it’s a completely artificial holiday, on a date pulled out of our collective ear, that obscures what actually happened between Europeans and Native Americans during the colonial period and after.

Not everybody celebrates Christmas. No school board president would ever mention that in describing how the board chooses its holidays. Many people work on Labor Day. The schools don’t seem to think of that as a reason to hold class and teach about the labor movement.

Children are not stupid. They can see that, to the ICCSD, that is, to us, the adults of Iowa City, Martin Luther King, Jr. and all he stands for are not as important as Christmas or Thanksgiving or Labor Day, or even the University of Iowa’s spring break.

That’s infuriating. It shouldn’t happen.


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