Do we know the real purpose of celebrating MLK Day?

celebrating MLK Day

I decided to document a personal sequence of events as to why I and others should really know why we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

I have been an active student of the civil rights movement since my childhood in Hernando, Mississippi. I attended segregated schools, from a one-room school house in Mississippi through the 12th grade in Memphis, Tennessee. Blacks were not allowed to attend White colleges in Memphis in 1962, so Lincoln University, a Black college in Jefferson City, Missouri, was my choice.

Like most Blacks, I grew up in an all-Black community in Memphis because we were not permitted to live in a White community. Blacks in Memphis were not legally authorized to go to the fairgrounds but once a year, on a Saturday. Blacks had one day, Wednesday, to visit the Memphis Zoo. Ironically, we could only see the monkeys, gorillas and apes.

Brother was lynched

My brother was lynched in 1963 in Biloxi, Miss.. He was 21 years old and I was 19. When I was 12 years old and Emmett Till was 14, Emmett was lynched in Money, Miss., not far from Hernando and Memphis. My mother and other ladies in the Black communities were running through the neighborhoods screaming that White folks are killing little Black boys and rushing us into the house.

Dr. King was murdered on my birthday, April 4, in my hometown of Memphis in one of the neighborhoods where I grew up. The Lorraine Motel was one of the few places Black high school students could visit after their prom, because it had a small ballroom inside. While growing up in Memphis, Blacks only lived on the north and south sides of town. We had eight traditional Black high schools and eight traditional White high schools.

Went to Washington

As a 19-year-old sophomore student at Lincoln University and a member of the Student Government Association, I attended the 1963 March on Washington, D.C. In 1983, I participated in the 20th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech while living in Washington, D.C. as a dean of the College of Education at the (Black) University of the District of Columbia.

In May 018, I was the recipient of the Civil Rights and Social Justice Award by the National Civil Rights Planning Committee in Philadelphia, Miss. This award was presented to me based on the body of my work in support of human dignity, civil rights, community involvement and social justice for more than 50 years. The award was presented during the 54th Anniversary Commemorative Service for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three young freedom fighters who were torched and lynched by White Ku Klux Klansmen in Philadelphia, Miss., while trying to get Blacks registered to vote in 1964.

Still dreaming and waiting

I’ve done hundreds of Dr. King’s speeches celebrating his life and legacy. We Blacks are still dreaming and waiting on another Dr. King to lead us. Too many Blacks have allowed others to suggest that we need a leader.

We are all leaders in our own right. God made all of us, made us different, but made us equal. We all can serve. God gave all of us a “niche” and hopefully, we as Blacks will continue to pray and support each other; invest in each other; trust each other; respect each other and our elders; and protect and teach our children about our rich history in this country and the world.

We need to teach our people how to use their own leadership skills and stop dreaming and waiting on someone else to decide and appoint us a leader. This is why Black folk cannot move beyond Dr. King’s death and birthday celebration.

They laid the foundation

Please don’t get me wrong or misunderstand my love, respect and appreciation for Dr. King’s great work and sacrifice. But we are standing on the shoulders of many giants, kings and queens in Africa and this country. Hundreds of years ago, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and many Black men and women paved the way before Dr. King was born.

My godmother, the late, great Shirley Chisholm; and my mentor, the late great Charles W. Cherry, Sr., both stated, “We need to study and analyze ourselves as opposed to being studied and analyzed by others. Know your history. There is no price tag on experience and exposure. We need to give our people more experience and exposure so they will know how to act, react and understand the real issues in life. But we can’t give our young people this experience and exposure if we don’t have it ourselves, especially if we continue to hate each other and continue to be jealous of each other’s accomplishments.”

I served as a vice president of a Black college in Birmingham, Ala., and as president of a Black college in Montgomery, Ala. I met, worshiped, spoke, worked and served on boards and advisory councils in these cities alongside many people who were responsible for Dr. King’s visits to Montgomery and Birmingham, including Reverend Dr. Abraham Woods, Reverend Dr. Garrett, Reverend Dr. John Porter, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. A. G. Gaston and Dr. Richard Arrington (the first Black mayor of Birmingham).

Do we know?

We celebrate Dr. King’s Day in January. (I also memorialize Dr. King’s death on April 4, my birthday). Do we really know why we are celebrating? Do we know our real history as a race of people? Or do we just want a day of rest, relaxation, partying and eating? Do we know where our children are? Do we know who is teaching our children?

Do we know that we are worse off today as a race of people than we were 51 years ago on April 4, 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated? We can see this digression on every front, including poorer, segregated neighborhoods with schools that have been diluted from public schools to charter schools; loss of small businesses in the Black community; no more real, traditional Black communities; more homeless military veterans, especially Black vets.

We have lost many Black two and four-year colleges and are still losing them every year because of a lack of real support from the Black community. There is a lack of real committed leadership and trained educational professionals that clearly understand our struggle and our history as a race of people. Black churches should do more for our communities and come together as a cohesive group to assist the elderly, the poor and the young. Today, “the most segregated day of the week,” as Dr. King mentioned, is still Sunday.

Changes on paper

So as we continue to “dream,” nothing changes. The 1964 and 1965 laws were supposed to bring about some changes. They did, but mainly on paper. Now we are still trying to get full voting rights, quality education, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods; Blacks’ and other convicted felons’ rights restored; decent-paying jobs; reduce Black on Black crime; and strengthen the family structure which has eroded tremendously.

I remember growing up in the 1950s and 1960s when Blacks owned grocery stores. Our neighborhoods were relatively clean and safe. There were small businesses ‒ newspapers, radio stations, banks, funeral homes and many, many other enterprises were flourishing. Today, most of them are gone. What happened? Who do we blame? Do we really know why we are celebrating Dr. King’s Day?

My brothers and sisters, we are seeing every day the 1964 and 1965 laws for our civil rights and voting rights eroding in front of us. We, as a race of people, have retrogressed on many fronts and made very little, if any, progress beyond the 1964 and 1965 laws on the books. These past political elections are true indicators of our lack of appreciation and understanding of our struggles as a race of people.

Economics and politics

My brothers and sisters, if we don’t have some real political and economic power and if we aren’t active participants at the decision-making table where we can be properly informed of the issues that affect our daily lives, we as a race of people are doomed to continue to fail.

If Dr. King was alive today, he would surely be grossly disappointed with our progress. As one of my great heroes, the late great Frederick Douglas said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. The want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.”

God bless each and every one of us as we continue this struggle celebrating Dr. King’s Day.


Dr. Willie J. Greer Kimmons is an educational consultant for pre-K-16 and Title I schools, teachers and parents. He is also a motivational speaker, author, former classroom teacher, superintendent of schools, college professor, college president and chancellor. Click on this commentary at to write your own response.



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