Open for business on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The civil rights leader Martin Luther King (C) waves to supporters 28 August 1963 on the Mall in Washington, D.C., (Washington Monument in background) during the 'March on Washington.'

U.S. financial markets are closed for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as are federal government offices, schools and banks. The holiday was established in 1986 and was adopted by all the states thereafter, though in some cases not without controversy.

Despite the holiday, around most cities today, most retail businesses aren't actually closed. “We would of course like more businesses and more people to recognize and commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King,” says Dedrick Muhammad, director of economic programs at the NAACP.

A survey of HR managers released by Bloomberg BNA last week found that 35 percent of U.S. employers (private, government, and nonprofit) plan to provide a paid day off for the holiday. That percentage has been creeping up very slowly in the past decade and is now on-par with President’s Day. It's higher than Columbus Day (16 percent) and Veteran’s Day (22 percent), but lower than the Friday after Thanksgiving (73 percent) and Christmas Eve (42 percent full-day, another 12 percent half-day), which are not federal holidays.

Muhammad says the significance of the day can’t be captured only by how many employers provide a day off and close their doors, “I think it is fair to ask: does it always require that people just shut down their businesses? Or are there activities at businesses that actually could help highlight the memory and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King?”

In fact, roughly one in 10 employers support some type of commemoration, educational program, workplace or community service project to mark the day. Sarah Willie-LeBreton, sociologist at Swarthmore College, says that’s a good start. “I do think that many people see it as a day off or a day to go shopping,” says Willie-LeBreton, “and that’s something we need to work on as a culture.”

Plus, she points out, hanging up a ‘Closed’ sign isn’t always possible.

“Small businesses are in a more challenged situation because they often have a smaller profit margin,” says Willie-LeBreton. “But there are ways in which you can designate a portion of your profits to go to organizations that are advancing social equality, or engage clients in discussions.”

William Spriggs at Howard University serves as chief economist for the ACLU and he thinks the emphasis on service may distract attention from Dr. King’s focus before he was assassinated on issues of poverty and economic justice.

“A lot of people feel compelled to do an act of service,” says Spriggs. “Dr. King was calling for something far more revolutionary than painting schools or cleaning parks. He wanted to fight for things like raising the minimum wage and a guaranteed income.”

Spriggs says Dr. King was controversial in life, and it’s good there’s a holiday now to keep his controversial ideas front and center.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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