How do we commemorate the man who, in President Obama’s words, ‘took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land?’ How do we rightfully honor a civil rights activist who gave his life fighting for justice?

Most schools in the country, including UR, were closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is a federal holiday. It seems to have become a custom to memorialize a person or an event with a day off. But this year, it is important to ask ourselves what better honors a person: a day off or a ‘day on.’

While cancelling classes for MLK Day seems appropriate – and students look forward to the day off (even on the heels of vacation) – is this really the right approach? As we’ strolled through Marketplace Mall, went skating or watched a movie, did we even remember why we were given a day off from classes? Were we conscious of the man whose life and death merited this holiday?

My guess is that even if students are aware of the reason for the day off, the majority of us will not spend the day involved with or focused on anything related to King’s dreams. Although there are campus groups, such as the Black Students’ Union and Students for Interfaith Action, who host community service opportunities on MLK Day, space is limited and people may not be motivated to sign up if the alternative is a day lounging around the dorms in pajamas.

And while even the Rev. Joseph Lowery will be on campus to deliver the Martin Luther King Day address, for those students who attend, it will probably be from preexisting curiosity about the civil rights movement and not from a sudden inspiration to honor King (though I gladly accept disagreement on this point).

Is there a better alternative that UR might consider – something that includes all students collectively spending the day living out King’s legacy? What about something similar to the annual Wilson Day during freshman orientation, a day devoted to bettering our surrounding communities?

King would have been proud of such collective activity that engages large numbers of people with social justice. The school could still cancel classes for the day, but they would be doing so for the sake of actively honoring King’s living memory by going out, doing something and making a difference.

Of course, students might groan if their free days are taken away, but, ultimately, a day devoted to social justice and change is a more fitting memorial to King than a day of shopping or catching up on your DVR. I know what it is like when your friends at other schools have the day off and you don’t – my high school always held school on MLK Day.

But rather than having regular classes, various teachers gave different presentations relating to civil rights, freedom, and Martin Luther King. Attendance was not taken, nothing we learned was graded or ‘counted’ in our classes and, sure, a lot of students chose to skip school on what was often written off as a ‘joke day.’ However, we were doing something as a school with the intention of actively honoring King. This was truly a ‘day on’ and not a day off.

As people continue to be given the day off for MLK Day, it is up to each individual to decide how the day should best be used. Is simply recognizing a day as a tribute to Dr. King sufficient enough, or should we actively participate in events’ in order to remind ourselves of his way of justice?

Berrin-Reinstein is a member of
the class of 2013.

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