I realized last week that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is my favorite day to be in D.C. The weather might be cold, but otherwise, it’s perfect.
Granted, I am fascinated by the Civil Rights movement. When the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington came around last August, I went with my older daughter and my mom. We stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King stood when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and visited the MLK memorial. Ten years earlier, my mom and I also took the Metro into D.C. for the 40th anniversary (and a teeny tiny picture of me was in the Washington Post article about the event). But even if I weren’t so interested, MLK Day is unique.
It’s exciting to be in D.C. on many days that draw tourists. There is always something happening here--holidays to celebrate and events to attend, including the 4th of July and the cherry blossom festival.
But D.C. can be a hostile place. Just the fact that the government is here makes it kind of contentious—someone is always unhappy, and there are naysayers about everything. And protests (and counterprotests) about everything. Those of us who live and work here know that we often have to change our plans when there’s a protest. Not to diminish protesters—they march or gather to support whatever they think is right, which I respect and which I have also taken part in. But to be in D.C. when a crowd has gathered only to celebrate something is a totally different experience.
On MLK Day, Jeff and I took our daughters and headed to the Lincoln Memorial first, but our route crossed the Vietnam and Korean war memorials, and they are impossible to ignore—too powerful to walk by without pausing. We gave a brief, kindergarten-appropriate lesson and walked over to the Lincoln, which was bustling with people talking, laughing, and taking each other’s pictures. I guess that might describe the typical crowd there, but I think most of them were probably there because of the day’s significance, not just because their tourist trip or walk down the mall happened to coincide with MLK Day.
There is now an engraving on one of the steps that marks the spot where King stood when he gave his famous speech. On MLK Day, people had to wait their turn to stand there and take pictures, and someone had thoughtfully poured water on the engraving so you could see it better. My kindergartener is too young to realize how exciting it is that she stood exactly where MLK stood when he spoke words that people would remember forever—but she understands a little of the history, and I love knowing that I am instilling in my daughters respect and appreciation for one of our country’s greatest historical figures.
The crowd at the MLK memorial was even more celebratory. People had obviously taken trips to D.C. for the sole purpose of being here for that day—they held up banners commemorating the event, and many of them were parents who brought their kids, like we did. I loved seeing the people who were there together and wondered what they’d say to each other about the experience.
To me, the MLK memorial would be impressive even if it consisted only of his words etched in some granite. (I continue to be awed by his words, and his Letter From a Birmingham Jail is one of the most powerful things I've ever read. To think he scrawled it in the margins of a newspaper.) But the memorial gives space to both his words and a statute of him that aptly represents what is carved on the side of the monument: out of a mountain of depair, a stone of hope.
History is important for many reasons. On MLK Day, I always think of how different the world was before the Civil Rights movement—it’s hard for me to believe my parents experienced that world—and I am thankful for King and the other leaders who made those changes happen so that my world is what it is. And I wasn’t the only person in D.C. that day celebrating history and pondering my place in it.