Former Oakland Tech teacher Tay McArthur, along with his former student Karen Kennedy Freeman, were looking thoughtfully at the lamp posts that line Lake Merritt. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had banners put up all over Oakland that commemorate the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?” McArthur said as he wrapped his arm around Freeman. “They’d be put up in the beginning of January—a month of remembrance for Dr. King in celebration of his spirit of nonviolence.”
Freeman is one of five students from Tech’s 1981 graduating class who, led by McArthur, their American government teacher, spearheaded the adoption of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a California holiday, four years before King’s birthday was enacted as a holiday throughout the United States. When a bill that would have started a national Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday failed to pass Congress in 1979, the group of Oakland students decided to instead lobby at the state level.
Now, the group, which calls themselves “The Apollos” after the Apollo 13 space mission, is lobbying local elected officials again to encourage Oakland to create a month-long celebration each January for King. Under his arm, McArthur held a folder of mock banners with text that read: National Martin Luther King, Jr. Month—Oakland, January 2013. The theme of the first year’s celebration would be nonviolence. If approved and funded, each consecutive year would employ another theme based on King’s teachings.
“One of the reasons we’re trying to have a whole Martin Luther King month is because of all the violence that’s been happening recently,” said Gwendolyn Lovely Patterson, a member of the Apollos. “If we can rally around this cause, actively, for an entire month—each parent, each class, each individual—then we might be able to come up with more solutions for how to stop the violence in our own lives.”
The group’s petition was officially launched at a December 18 City Council meeting, at which elected officials approved a resolution acknowledging the Apollos for their “significant role in the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and their further effort to establish January as National King Month.”
The group’s original push for a holiday to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. started in 1979, the year that Congress failed to pass a bill naming a holiday for him. McArthur’s class was learning about how the wheels of bureaucracy turn. They’d learned about how bills are passed in Congress, and even how holidays are created. “Somebody said, ‘Why isn’t there a holiday for any African Americans?’” Freeman remembered. “Tay said ‘Name one,’ and we said ‘Dr. King.’ That’s when he said, ‘OK, here’s what you’ll need to do.’”
What followed the next year was a robust lobbying effort taken on by a group of about 20 enthusiastic teenagers. It started with a letter-writing campaign to members of the California legislature, and was followed by trips to Sacramento to speak at hearings and make personal visits to the offices of elected officials.
They adopted burgundy and white as the official colors of their class, and had class rings made inscribed with a symbol reminiscent of the logo used by the Apollo space mission. (They got NASA’s blessing to repurpose the image.) Their version differed slightly: On their design was a sun led by a horse and chariot, with an “A,” followed by a motto in Latin. “The space mission’s saying was ‘To the moon through science,’” Freeman said. “Ours said, ‘We who reach for the stars.’ King had big ideas, and so did we.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was adopted as an official state holiday in September, 1981, and was first celebrated in January, 1982. “We were learning history by practicing it,” said Freeman, remembering what it took to create the holiday in the state. “It was a long process for us, but when it finally happened the summer I graduated high school, I was so excited.”
In 1983, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became a federal holiday. Today, in celebration, schools and most government offices are closed. School lessons, teaching King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, are often given both prior to King’s birthday on January 15 and during classes following the holiday, and there is often a “day of service” planned in cities across the nation at which community members volunteer in their neighborhoods. This year the city of Oakland is planning a host of events in commemoration, including a celebration with BART employees at the Kaiser Center Building, a “Celebrate MLK Day” event at the Oakland Museum of California, and a musical tribute, called “In the Name of Love,” at the Paramount Theater.
So far, the Oakland City Council has only adopted a resolution in support of a month-long local celebration. The Apollos must still raise money and work with the city on a program that would promote a celebration throughout January. To get it adopted as legislation statewide, additional lobbying efforts must be undertaken by the group.
“We’re excited that this new commemoration is happening, but there are still many details that must be worked out,” said Samee Roberts, marketing director for the city. “We’re scrambling right now, trying to see what we can do in the few weeks we have left.”
Roberts said the idea of placing hundreds of banners on posts throughout the city may be too expensive in such a short timeframe, with only 20 days left in the month, but there are other possibilities, including using bus shelters or billboards to get the message across. Banners cost around $200 each, and just to line Broadway from Oakland Tech to Jack London Square, which is what organizers want to start with, will cost thousands of dollars, Roberts said. “Right now, we’re looking for meaningful ways to support the effort this month, with an eye towards what can be done in the future,” Roberts added.
This year, Oakland public schools will observe Martin Luther King, Jr. day on January 15. Freeman, now herself a teacher at Fruitvale Elementary, said each year she teaches her students a simple song in commemoration. The lyrics go: “Martin Luther King, a man of love, a man of peace, a man of unity; follow his example every day.”