Before we could shop the aisles of any department store, book reservations at new restaurants or trendy hotels, or move into shi-shi neighborhoods, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamt of our freedom beyond Black and White. Fifteen years after he gave his life in pursuit of our civil rights, Donna Brazile — then a 22-year-old upstart just out of college — was instrumental in collecting seven million signatures on a petition to turn the third Monday in January into an official commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday. It is the greatest accomplishment in her professional life, she admits, and still a very relevant celebration of his spirit.
ESSENCE.com: What was the catalyst behind the creation of the King holiday?
DONNA BRAZILE: The focus was to make it a national holiday that would not only honor Dr. King’s dream but be a special day that would recognize the country’s commitment to justice and equality. When it was established, Mrs. King and Ronald Reagan signed a pledge that to live the dream, one had to find a cause so that Dr. King’s holiday wouldn’t be a commercial day to go out and shop or pursue other activities. It was never a day off, but rather a day on to serve others.
ESSENCE.com: Some argue that because we have a Black president and a growing Black upper middle class that Dr. King’s dream is realized. What do you think?
BRAZILE: We’ve have made progress toward many of the things Dr. King not only preached about but worked towards, but we still live in a country where women make less money than men simply because we’re female. We live in a country where the incarceration rate for young, Black males without a high school education has surged since 1980. So we still have a long way to go, but it’s not as far as the distance that we’ve traveled.
ESSENCE.com: How can parents and people who work with this generation make Dr. King’s dream pertinent to them today?
BRAZILE: Dr. King once said “faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” What we have to tell our kids is how Dr. King saw the future, how he saw them involved in the future, how he saw their lives transformed by the work that he was doing. Obama didn’t become president simply because he ran a great campaign and had wonderful slogans and bumper stickers. He was able to become president because Dr. King laid the groundwork. It’s up to parents to let their children know that in order for us to realize his dream, we have to nurture what it was that Dr. King ultimately gave his life for, and that was to make this country a more perfect union.
ESSENCE.com: Any suggestions for things we can get involved in on Dr. King’s day?
BRAZILE: We don’t have to go far to look for a cause. We can find ways in our own neighborhoods to make a difference. Bring the Jiffy cornbread mixes that you didn’t cook up for Christmas and Thanksgiving to the food bank. Take some of them old Jets and Essences and Ebonys to a nursing home. There are so many seniors that don’t get a visit, that don’t have anybody to come and see them. Take something from your own life that means a lot but would mean even more to someone else.