Martin Luther King Day

3rd Monday in January

Martin Luther King
Across from the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

The above quote was from his Mountaintop speech, given one day before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.

Today we remember, not his tragic death, but his remarkable life.

In the early 1980’s, Martin Luther King Day was a holiday in several states, but there was debate about whether King ‘deserved’ a federal holiday. After all only one other American had been so honored. George Washington.

[Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is not a federal holiday. There was a movement to rename Washington’s Birthday ‘Presidents Day’ but according to the Federal Government it is still celebrated as Washington’s Birthday. Lincoln’s Birthday is celebrated at the state level, as is the name ‘Presidents Day.’]

Then-Senator Barack Obama pointed out in his speech for the MLK Memorial ground-breaking that:

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a president of the United States–at no time in his life did he hold public office. He was not a hero of foreign wars. He never had much money, and while he lived he was reviled at least as much as he was celebrated.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s path differs from Washington’s in many respects; however, his life is consistent with the lives of those who have been honored via holidays throughout the world over the past three thousand years.

  1. Martin Luther King was the unofficial spiritual leader of a large, underrepresented minority, suffering from great, long-lasting injustice.
  2. Against incredible odds he successfully challenged and helped to change the unjust laws and practices of a powerful nation.
  3. In the process he was prosecuted and imprisoned by that nation’s government.
  4. He traveled great distances to deliver 2,500 speeches.
  5. His words reached hundreds of millions of people.
  6. He made it known through his words and proved through his actions that the values for which he lived outweighed the sacrifices he would have to make fighting for them, even if this meant death. (He had received countless death threats before his assassination.)
  7. He was struck down during the height of his leadership, while fighting for those values and leading his people to freedom.
  8. And he left behind a large body of written and–thanks to the advent of television–spoken work that explains his political, spiritual and moral belief system for future generations.

Former Ambassador to the UN Andrew Young was with King in Memphis, Tennessee the day he died. Young reflects on the events that led up to King’s famed: “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“There had been 60 unsolved bombings in Birmingham, Alabama. There were people being beaten up on the street for no good reason. Martin said, “We’ve got to take on Birmingham.” A group of black leaders came to meet with him to call off the demonstrations because we had several hundred people in jail, and we didn’t have bond money to bail them out. They were asking him to stop the demonstration and to leave town and go around speaking to try to raise money to get these people out. He got up and went into the next room and in about five minutes, he came back with his overalls on, and he said, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I know you mean well, but I cannot leave with these people in jail. The only thing I can do is go join them.”

It was in that jail cell that Martin Luther King penned a letter, started in the margins of an old newspaper, and continued on scraps of paper. It is now one of the most powerful documents of the Civil Rights era and a manifesto of civil disobedience.

Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King

Poems Concerning Martin Luther King Jr.

Ujima & Ujamaa and Muhammad Nassardeen

December 28 & 29

December 28th and 29th are the 3rd and 4th days of Kwanzaa. The themes of these days are Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) and Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics). On the surface these do not sound like the general feel-good (or feel-bad) sentiments that accompany most holidays. For the record, other days of the celebration include themes such as Unity, Purpose, and Faith–themes more consistent with older holidays. Ujima and Ujamaa may be overshadowed by these more traditional holiday themes, but all are equally important.

Umoja, or Unity, is the first step, asking the community to recognize itself as a united group.

Kujchagulia, Self-determination, asks the African-American community to define itself and its future on its own terms rather than through the eyes of others.

Ujima and Ujamaa are the nuts and bolts of the operation. They require not just talk but actual tangible steps to achieve.

One man who did just that was Muhammad Nassardeen. His organization Recycling Black Dollars was an effort to keep the money of the African-American community within the community. White neighborhoods recycle dollars 5 times. Latino communities recycle dollars 3 times. And Asian-American communities as much as nine times. But Nassardeen found that the African-American community recycled the average dollar less than 1 time.

By creating and encouraging businesses and organizations, including local churches, to bank and buy within the Los Angeles African-American community Nassardeen helped to increase the wealth of the community substantially.

Unfortunately Nassardeen died in October 2007 of a heart attack. But his contributions to Cooperative Economics are remembered this Kwanzaa in the city where Kwanzaa first greeted the world.

[originally published Dec. 29, 2007]


December 26 – January 1


God makes three requests of his children: Do the best you can, where you are, with what you have now.

— African-American Proverb

Originally intended as an Afrocentric alternative to Western holidays in the United States, Kwanzaa is now celebrated by people of African heritage in Europe and the Caribbean as well as by millions in Africa itself. The term Kwanzaa comes from the Kiswahili phrase “ya kwanzaa” meaning “first fruits.” The name refers to the ageless African tradition of harvesting the first fruits of the season. According to, “Kwanzaa is a time of year for black people to come together to celebrate the fruits of our labor during the past year.”

Other names you might hear today:

Mishumaa saba: the seven candles.

Nia: purpose

And perhaps most important: Nguzo Saba.

Nguzo Saba means Seven Principles, or Seven Reasons. The week-long celebration of Kwanzaa emphasizes one of the seven principles each day.

  • Umoja – Unity – Dec. 26
  • Kujichagulia – Self-Determination – Dec. 27
  • Ujima – Collective Work and Responsibility – Dec. 28
  • Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics – Dec. 29
  • Nia – Purpose – Dec. 30
  • Kuumba – Creativity – Dec. 31
  • Imani – Faith – Jan. 1

The Nguzo Saba are the “minimum set of values African Americans need to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and interest and build and sustain an Afrocentric family, community and culture.” — Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga

The Kinara (candleholder) symbolizes African ancestors; The Mishumaa Saba (7 candles) symbolize the 7 Principles


On the first day of Kwanzaa African-Americans celebrate Umoja, or “unity”. It is the foundation of the seven Nguzo. Politicians often call upon “unity” as a slogan in the national arena, yet the concept of unity is overlooked within our communities and within the family.

Unity of the family is the building block of Umoja. It means unity of father and mother as role models for their children, and respect for one’s elders. Karenga notes that in many Western societies the elderly have been cast aside “leaving them with only failing memories.” African communities utilize the experience of their elders as judges and conflict resolvers. Their participation benefits both the society as a whole and the elders themselves.

A central purpose of Kwanzaa is to teach the younger generation about traditions that were passed down by Africans for countless generations, but were violently torn away during the slave trade and slavery. Marcus Garvey wrote:

A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.

Umoja extends from family to community, from community to nation, and from nation to race. Applying the concept of umoja to the entire race is a difficult challenge. The African continent is home to over 50 nations. Each of these nations has not only its own ethnic identity, but several, often competing identities. And attempting to apply umoja to the entire continent and to all those descended from it is nothing less miraculous than uniting the entire planet.

But the principle of umoja is a practice as well as a principle. And the practice of umoja begins at home, one family at a time.

Tomorrow we celebrate the principle and the practice of Kujichagulia: Self-Determination…

Up you mighty race: accomplish what you will.

— Marcus Garvey

The first Kwanzaa stamp, 1997