As a still relatively new holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day has yet to develop its widely recognized celebratory routines. Thanksgiving involves a feast; Christmas, a tree and gifts; the Fourth of July, fireworks. Is MLK Day set aside for remembering and reflection, or is it a time for public service? I confess I don’t know the best way to commemorate the great man’s achievements. (In Portland, Oregon, options include listening to speeches and going to the zoo for free.)
I do know that my most memorable MLK Day so far occurred in the last January of my years in New York. The Brooklyn Academy of Music arranged a program of events culminating in a concert by Mavis Staples, who sang songs from her then-still-new recording We’ll Never Turn Back, along with Staple Singers classics. King inspired the Staple Singers, who started to sing “freedom songs” in the 1960s. She wanted We’ll Never Turn Back to convey the same message as those anthems from the civil rights movement: “We’ve got to keep pushing to make the world a better place.” Having people like Mavis Staples making beautiful music does precisely that, I believe (and her fine 2010 follow-up, You Are Not Alone, backs me up).