Martin Luther King was a great human being who deserves all the praise that he gets. Nevertheless, I have always the regretted that our national holiday honoring the achievements of the civil rights movement is called Martin Luther King Day. I would much prefer that the holiday be named Civil Rights Day or better yet Social Justice Day.

There are several reasons for my regret. King was indeed an outstanding leader of the civil rights movement, but he was by no means its only leader and not always its most important leader. Naming the civil rights holiday Martin Luther King Day minimizes the vital contributions of people like W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Tarbell, Paul Robeson, A. Philip Randolph, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, JamesFarmer, Ella Baker, Malcolm X, Stokeley Carmichael and Fannie Lou Hamer among many others.

Even more important, naming the civil rights holiday Martin Luther King Day suggests that major social change is the work of a few messianic individuals rather than the achievement of a broad mass movement. This outlook misrepresents the civil rights movement, disempowers ordinary people and distorts our understanding of how vital social change actually happens. Sustained and emancipatory social change may require leaders, but more often than not movements for change create leaders rather than vice versa. Furthermore, vibrant social movements energize their own leaders and nurture the leadership capacities of these persons.


The work of social justice and peace to which Martin Luther King dedicated his life remains vastly incomplete. We who favor these causes need not pine for the arrival of a heroic leader who will guide us towards a better world. Our task is to build a vital movement for social change, and in that process we will also create the very leaders that our movement requires. Indeed, we may discover that some seemingly ordinary person possesses potent but unsuspected leadership capacities. After all, Martin Luther King was one of our kind, not a saint dispatched to us from heaven.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" column runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.