While attending McKinley Elementary School in Long Beach, CA, I would on occasion cross paths with my younger sister Tracey. One afternoon, Tracey came up to me to share some news during the lunch hour, back when schools would actually let you play outside with other kids, after a short respite to eat lunch in the cafeteria. (This alone would be an adventure if you weren’t lucky enough to be dining on Taco Tuesday or Pizza Friday). She shared with me she had been selected by her teacher, Mrs. Harvey, to write a letter to then President Jimmy Carter.
I asked her why she was selected and what she would be writing about. Well, after she told the story it did not sound quite so prestigious, but the topic was still quite intriguing. She was selected due to her lovely penmanship. Still pretty cool, I thought. But she was writing to the president asking him to make a holiday for a leader that had been egregiously overlooked to this point. I asked Tracey how she would write it not knowing much about this man who we had heard wonderful, yet tragic stories about. She explained that the words for this letter were already formed by her teacher, with the help of Tracey’s classmates. And the story was about Dr. Martin Luther King and how he was worthy of a national holiday.
We thought that was cool. But we also were smart enough to know that a sitting president wasn’t going to make a law based on what a teacher and a bunch of snot-nosed kids wanted (sorry sister). But, sure enough, just a few short weeks after the letter was sent to Washington, D.C., the class got a response from President Carter’s Director of Correspondence. Here is the actual letter:
So I always teased Tracey that if we ever had a holiday named after Martin Luther King, Jr., that she would be directly responsible for the extra day off from school. It was just five years later that eventual President Ronald Reagan passed the bill into law that would celebrate the birth of the great Civil Rights leader of our day. It was January of 1986, three years after the law was ratified, we celebrated the first Martin Luther King National Holiday.
Tracey and I reflected on it years later. She had participated actively in changing history. Ironically, so did Dr. King; but in a much more profound way. And we learned a valuable lesson in the process. We saw the effort put forth by Mrs. Harvey’s 5th grade class at McKinley Elementary School come to fruition, as our leaders had listened to our request. We now felt a greater connection of what Dr. King had to endure to get his message across.
(Chris Gaines is an author and Editor-in-Chief of Patriot Gaines. He resides in the Cedar Valley of Northern Iowa with his wife, Jen, and his two kids, Patrick & Megan)