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King's message has added meaning this year

The federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has taken on added meaning for most Americans this year, as they try to make sense of the violence in Arizona that left six people dead and a member of Congress fighting for her life.

A state that once resisted the notion of a federal King holiday -- and last year was the setting for a sharp-tongued debate on immigration -- now finds itself in search of solace after the Jan. 8 attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the throng of people around her outside a grocery store in Tucson. The balm of choice is King, a pacifist Southern preacher whose own life was cut short by gun violence.

"Dr. King's message was about inclusion and the recognition of human dignity, of human rights and making sure that all of our voices are heard," said Imani Perry, an African-American studies professor at Princeton University. "I hope people in Arizona, in particular, embrace that part of his message. The politics in Arizona recently have often seemed to revolve around excluding people."

Today marks the 25th federal observance of the birth of King.

"So little of his real politics show up in these annual commemorations," said Morgan State University professor Jared Ball. "Instead of actually reading what he wrote or listening to what he said, we pick catchphrases and throw his name around. We all feel for the tragic incident that took place in Arizona, but this is happening to people all over the world every day in one form or another."

Martin Luther King III, head of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, said the Arizona tragedy is a grim reminder that the country has not yet achieved his father's dream of a peaceful society.

"When incidents occur like what we saw in Arizona, it shows us how much work we must do to create the kind of nation where nonviolence is embraced," King said.

A national remembrance of the civil rights icon is an opportunity for the country to renew its commitment to King's cause. Absent that, it's unclear how his legacy would be remembered, said Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley.

"The holiday brought the freedom struggle into the main narrative," Brinkley said. "The day is meant to be a moment of reflection against racism, poverty and war. It's not just an African-American holiday. The idea of that day is to try to understand the experience of people who had to overcome racism but in the end are part and parcel of the American quilt."

King, who was born Jan. 15, 1929, was killed at age 39. "The struggle that the holiday itself has is to not just be a day off," Brinkley said. "We have trouble with that. We have to constantly be vigilant not to let that happen."

Legislation calling for a federal King holiday was introduced in Congress by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan just four days after King's April 4, 1968, assassination.

It would be another 15 years before Congress warmed to the idea and passed it into law.

President Ronald Reagan signed the bill establishing the third Monday in January as the Martin Luther King National Holiday on Nov. 3, 1983, and the first observance was Jan. 20, 1986.

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