COLUMBIA, S.C. – Civil rights leaders said Friday that school districts around the Southeast should scrap plans to use the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to make up for snow days, calling the decision an insult to the civil rights icon's legacy.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, among others, said schools in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina should find other ways to make up days lost after a winter storm coated the region in snow and ice, making roads treacherous. But educators, some facing mandatory furloughs, said they had scant options to make sure students were in classrooms for the number of days required by law.
In Rock Hill, S.C., for instance, three school days were canceled just a week after students returned from Christmas break. Some Georgia districts canceled class for an entire week.
Ordinarily, administrators would have plucked teacher "work days" — scheduled days for teachers but not students — for make-up days. But in South Carolina — the last state to recognize King Day as a paid holiday for state employees — officials said budget cuts meant many of those work days were already set aside for unpaid furlough days.
"There was no intent on anyone's part to devalue this day in recognition of this American leader," said Rock Hill schools spokeswoman Elaine Baker, who said her district lost $10 million in funding last year. "We're just moving ahead and doing the business that we always do, which is educating children."
However, some civil rights leaders said it's the educators who may need a lesson. The issue was especially sensitive in Georgia — King's home state and a launching pad for the civil rights movement.
On Thursday, NAACP leaders there called on two rural counties to cancel classes planned on the federal holiday. District superintendents said they had to make up for nine school days missed this year because of winter weather, but some called the decision an insult to King's legacy.
King was assassinated in 1968. The holiday was established in 1986.
"For that day, so many have died. For that day, so many have marched. So many have been martyred," Jackson told The Associated Press.
Explaining their decision to hold school Monday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school officials in North Carolina said teachers had been encouraged to include information on King in the day's lesson plans. The head of that state's NAACP chapter said that's not enough.
"This is a holiday of someone who was violently assassinated for standing up for love and truth and justice," said the Rev. William Barber, who said parents should consider keeping their children out of school Monday to discuss King's legacy at home or church. "I think there are some things you should defy. Dr. King defied rules, when those rules didn't make sense."
That notion of defiance was echoed by Sharpton, who called the schools' decision "a national outrage" and also said parents should consider keeping their children home.
"It is frightening that educators have no regard for what those days mean and why they were chosen," Sharpton said.
Educators in other parts of the country said they faced little blowback for holding class on King Day. James Haley, superintendent of a school district in Warsaw, Mo., said adding days to the end of the school year often bumped into summer school time, while Saturday sessions often proved unproductive.
"I had elementary classrooms without a single student in them" on Saturdays, Haley said.
Not all civil rights leaders were insulted, either. Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who is president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, said he didn't mind as long as students understood King's ideals.
"They should be committed to doing the work of Dr. King every day as long as they live," he said, "because they can make Dr. King's dream a reality instead of a nightmare."
Associated Press Writer Greg Bluestein in Atlanta contributed to this report.