The Problem with Companies Just Beginning to Recognize MLK Day

Image from newmedia.org via bswise/Flickr.com

With the new year in full swing, many people who started new jobs recently may be wondering if their companies recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. After all, it is now less than two weeks away. (Yes, time really is flying by that quickly.) I am one of those people. I started my job in May of last year. My company’s handbook did not list MLK Day as a company holiday, so I assumed we did not get it off, until today when I put in a PTO request and was notified by a project manager that it is in fact a company holiday as of last year. I was happy to hear this, but it raised many thoughts that I think are worthy of discussion.

When I started my job, I wasn’t pleased to see MLK Day not listed as a holiday. Every company should recognize it, period. But I am more bothered by companies that claim to value diversity, equity, and inclusion, yet do not recognize MLK Day. It comes off as careless and contradictory to stated values. If promoting equity is of utmost importance, then the legacy of our country’s foremost champion of civil rights should surely be honored. Going beyond this, companies should actively plan days of service in MLK’s honor. There are countless organizations looking for help and companies should empower their leaders, human resources departments, and general employees in doing impactful work on this one day of the year. Just recognizing MLK Day is a step forward, but it is also the easy way out.

Companies that have decided to recognize MLK Day in recent years need to make this clear to their employees, and be diligent about doing so. Black employees, in particular, care about what holidays companies choose to recognize. If MLK Day is not recognized, that means something, and usually not for the better. When I received my offer letter and a copy of the employee handbook, and saw that MLK Day was not a holiday, it didn’t make me feel good. It made me ask why it wasn’t recognized as a holiday. Did my company not see it is important enough to be recognized?

Just as importantly, with companies just beginning to recognize MLK Day, I find myself asking: why just now? My presumption is George Floyd. The timing is too aligned for me to not think this. Seeing a Black man choked to death via knee finally made companies recognize racism, and in a way, recognizing MLK Day is a form of recognizing racism (or a man who fought so passionately to eliminate it). I won’t say that it isn’t progress, but it is sad that it took George Floyd’s death for companies to finally implement policies and efforts to escalate Black voices and address racial gaps. It means that racism is only recognized when it is carried out in the most obvious of ways.

And this is precisely the problem. If George Floyd hadn’t been murdered in the manner in which he was, and his death not been caught on camera and shared on social media, part of me truly doubts that Juneteenth would have also been declared a holiday. I also doubt that companies that started recognizing MLK Day in 2021 (or this year) would have started recognizing it. Why was Michael Brown not enough? Trayvon Martin? The scores of Black people of all genders who came before and after them? I feel like it was because he was kneeled on. But Eric Garner being put in a chokehold wasn’t. It shouldn’t matter how a Black person is killed for their death to matter. Unjust, racially driven murder is murder regardless of how it is committed. But unfortunately, we are in an age in which it does, and furthermore shapes the ripple effect through society. Companies just recently observing MLK Day need to be asking themselves why it took them so long. They should make this clear to their employees.

The fact that is likely took George Floyd’s murder for these things to happen sets an extremely dangerous precedent. If it takes a Black person to be gruesomely murdered for companies to finally recognize Black history and observe civil rights leaders, then what will it take to go past this? I don’t want to even imagine it.

In addition to recognizing MLK Day, some companies stopped recognizing Presidents’ Day. They essentially replaced MLK Day with Presidents’ Day as a company holiday. I feel like this was done because Donald Trump was in office. By not recognizing Presidents’ Day, they weren’t recognizing him, and that felt right in the moment. I remember doing an internship during winter break when I was in graduate school. I commented that I wasn’t coming in on MLK Day as I assumed it was given off, but it wasn’t. One of the employees at the company commented that it was kind of messed up that the company recognized Presidents’ Day but not MLK Day. I wonder if this employee would have said the same had Trump not been in office.

This is the issue with being choosey about when certain holidays are recognized. What happens when we have a Black president again, or a woman, or someone that is not a white male? Will companies that cancelled Presidents’ Day during the Trump presidency feel bad and start recognizing Presidents’ Day again? And how will this affect if/how they recognize MLK Day? It creates a confusing, biased system that is based on who is President and whether cell phone footage of Black people being murdered is going viral.

Here is the solution. Recognize MLK Day. Every year. Without exception. Recognize Juneteenth. Every year. Without exception. Recognize Presidents’ Day. Every year. Without exception. These holidays weren’t created for companies to treat them as expressions of their own internal politics or values. They were created because they have been deemed culturally important and reflective of our society’s values by the government that was elected by the people. So let’s treat them that way. All of them.

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