Many people know Jehovah’s Witnesses as “those people who come to your door to talk about the teachings of God and aren’t Mormons.” You may also know Jehovah’s Witnesses as “those people who don’t accept blood transfusions or celebrate holidays, including birthdays.” Growing up, I was part of their world—raised within this minority religion on the predominantly Catholic island of Puerto Rico. From approximately ages 1 to 12, I didn’t really do holidays or birthdays. Reluctantly, I was eventually allowed to attend birthday parties around age 13. So how did my religious upbringing in the JW universe leave me with valuable lessons about celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, life, and death? Read on.
Note: This post isn’t meant to holistically explain JW doctrine or take a stance on their overall existence, but use some of the teachings I digested as a vehicle for remembrance of a key historical figure. Though it’s been ages since I left the faith, my family’s still in the JW world.
1. Beware of Birthdays Being Used for Shady Purposes
I remember being told that part of the reason we didn’t celebrate birthdays as JWs is because they had pagan roots, and historical birthday celebrations were tinged with violence and “sexual depravity.” I vividly recall the story of Herodias asking for John the Baptist’s head at the birthday of Herod Antipas, and stories of a baker being hanged at a pharaoh’s birthday. Part of my child’s brain didn’t get why we had to worry about ancient history if birthdays were something different now, but clearly roots were important somehow. To celebrate birthdays was to invite paganism and a history of sin into my life. Fast forward to the present day, and though I disagree with many teachings of the JW faith and their interpretations of the Bible, the importance of history is front and center in my life.
The roots of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work are important, as is the history of how he became the only non-White person to have a federal holiday named after him in the U.S., especially for someone who didn’t hold public office. Still, for many people, Martin Luther King Jr.’s day is just an excuse to get out of work and perhaps a reminder to post a half-hearted meme about nonviolence on Facebook. In fact, this is one of the peak days for non-Black folks on social media to misquote and misinterpret a lot of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings.
This holiday is a time when people spin his relentless anti-racism work into a palatable mush. It’s easy and convenient to misuse this holiday and spit out words about “turning the other cheek” and “peaceful activism” to condemn activists doing disruptive protests, to explain why people of color (and particularly Black people) have to be eternally accommodating and kind to those that infringe upon our rights.
I’m not here for it.
I am not interested in celebrations, awards, or acknowledgement given as a silencing tactic or as table scraps. I am not interested in holidays meant to make a community feel complacent or satisfied. Don’t give me a sanitized version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s politics. He was a radical and he was considered a dangerous rabble-rouser. Don’t buy the modern-day fairytale that somehow the United States government and its White leaders were welcoming and thankful for his nonviolent approach, especially in contrast to Malcolm X’s.
Don’t forget Martin Luther King Jr.’s comments on White moderates, and how he felt they were one of the biggest threats to Black people in the United States, more so than the extremists and Ku Klux Klanners. Don’t let people flatten his history and use his birthday as a way to squash radical anti-racist work. Don’t let those around you repeat the most general statements about “equal rights” and blatantly ignore past and present calls to specific action.
2. Celebrating Birthdays Can Detract From The Issues And WHO/What Should Truly Be Honored
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, birthdays celebrating individuals detract from the glory that should be going to God, seen as the true and only creator of any life on Earth. Additionally, many JWs stress that focusing on celebrating a person’s birth ignores what they did with their life. The latter is way more important to Jehovah; it has implications for one’s place (or lack thereof) on an earthly paradise post-Armageddon! So what does it mean to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a modified version of that in mind? To me, it means we should look at his life’s work, and that shouldn’t divorce said iconic work from the people who propped him up and helped him become the figurehead he is in our modern day.
There are those who knew Martin Luther King Jr. as a human, and have a visceral, personal understanding of his legacy. There should be space to understand Martin Luther King Jr. as a whole person, flaws and all. However, what he is to most of the U.S. is a symbol, and we can’t forget what that symbol stands for. Here, the man turns into shorthand for a larger story and a struggle for justice. The symbol is useful, but we have to be wary of mistaking the signifier for the signified.
So, I don’t generally use the “behind every man there is a great woman” line because it feels really limited and way too heterosexist for my universe, but there is truth in its spirit. Behind our great leaders we have those who support(ed) them in myriad ways (e.g. in the case of MLK Jr., two obvious names are Bayard Rustin and Coretta Scott King). Behind our tireless activists there are the community-members, partners, friends, families, that help feed them, clothe them, tend to their physical and spiritual injuries, love them, laugh with them, cry with them.
None of us are or work alone, even when we feel like a tiny pinprick in the fabric of the universe.
Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday can be a way to elevate those connections rather than a way to erase MLK’s sins, prop him up as an exception, and/or spread misinformation. We can take this as an opportunity to reflect on the past and current civil rights movements he influenced, and those he did not live long enough to witness. We can take this as a time to hear about and honor other influential (and often under-praised) figures like Miss Major, Sylvia Rivera, Maria Elena Durazo, Mary Church Terrell, Dorothy Height, Dolores Huerta, Audre Lorde, Diane Nash, Marsha P. Johnson, and Claudette Colvin. What would our struggles for justice be without the femmes, without the women, without the queer and trans people? Let’s give credit everywhere it’s due.
3. We Shouldn’t Wait For Birthdays To Rejoice And Remember
Being part of a minority religion with “weird rules” like no birthdays meant that I had to defend my views pretty often. Though not a religious institution, my K-12 school operated under laicism, or “French secularism,” but still somehow managed to have a catechism class, a place in the yearbook for First Communion pictures, and participation in Christian sports leagues. Birthdays were often celebrated in the classrooms, and by the time I was in 5th or 6th grade, I had vast experience with deflecting criticism and annoying questions. Heck, I had stock answers ready, like “I can receive presents all year round, so I’m not missing out!” or “My family can have other celebrations, and we don’t need to wait for a birthday!”
Though I’m no longer part of the JW faith, those ideas have stuck with me. Anniversaries, birthdays, other holidays can serve as convenient markers of experiences and excuses to party, but it’s silly to relegate all our joy, love, and sharing to those dates. While I can use, say, Valentine’s Day to tell my partners and loved ones how much they mean to me, I don’t wait until that date to do it. Furthermore, in a capitalist society, I should get creative with how I honor the people and values I cherish rather than defaulting to just buying things.
Similarly, we don’t need to wait until Martin Luther King Jr. Day to acknowledge the history of White supremacy in this country. We don’t need to wait until this holiday to acknowledge the great strides being made by the Black Lives Matter movement. We don’t need to buy something to signify our commitment and wear it like an empty promise. We don’t need to wait until Martin Luther King Jr. Day to speak about racism, raising the minimum wage, the importance of climate justice, or any of the other areas of inequality and injustice King talked about.
If this holiday is the only time during the year that we discuss anti-racism and Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, we’re doing something wrong.
Let’s discuss these issues and individuals year round. Let’s use this annual date to expand our celebration and acknowledgement, to provoke brilliant and multifaceted conversations!
So, Go On, Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s LEgacy For Longer than Just 24 Hours:
- Learn about Martin Luther King Jr.’s history.
- Teach the little humans around you about MLK Jr. and the civil rights movement.
- Listen to a Spotify playlist merging his famous speeches with music inspired by his work.
- Witness the queer activists of color taking disruptive action to protest.
- Read about the activists reclaiming this holiday in a way that acknowledges the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.
- Support actions to restore voting rights to all, particularly in light of the impending elections and some of the egregious candidates running for office.