Monday is a federal holiday honoring the birth of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It shouldn't just be another day off from work or school tacked onto a weekend.

Rather, it needs to be a time for all of us to reflect on King's message, as important today as it was half a century ago.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday in January, the date closest to his birthday. This year, it happens to fall on King's actual birthday, Jan. 15. It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, although some states initially resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

When remembering King and his work, we most often hear about his famous "I Have a Dream" speech delivered on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In it, King called for civil and economic rights - and an end to racism in the United States.

Have we made progress?

It depends on whom you ask. Most polls, however, conclude that racism remains a problem. Events of the day will bear that out.

But the real question we need to be asking ourselves is what are we, personally, doing about it? We can shake our heads in shame or raise our fists in protest, but nothing will ever improve until we decide to adjust our own attitude. And to do that, we need to listen to King's message and relate it to our own lives.

King's "Dream" speech is powerful. But another speech not as popular is his last speech, often referred to as his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), in Memphis.

The next day, King was assassinated.

The "Mountaintop" speech isn't as oft-quoted as the "Dream" speech, probably because it deals mainly with the Memphis sanitation strike. After all, that's why King went to there - to call for unity, economic actions, boycotts and nonviolent protest.

But part of that speech merits discussion because it offers some keen insight into how we can address the problem of racism and equality.

During the speech, King talked about being attacked several years previously in New York City by a crazed woman who plunged a knife into his chest. X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of his aorta, the heart's main artery. Once that's punctured, it's over. It was reported the next day that had he sneezed it would have killed him.

Surgery saved him. Several days later, King received a letter from a young girl which read:

"Dear Dr. King,

"I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.

"While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."

Out of the mouths of babes. Often our innocent children, whose honesty can manifest itself in truth and wisdom far beyond their years, show us the way.

On the special weekend, let's remember the words of this young lady and find a way to truly celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday.

A few suggestions:

• Attend the 13th annual Rev. Martin Luther King celebration and program in Rome today, sponsored by the Utica-Rome Historical Black Ministerial Alliance, Inc. Alliance president Katherine Jones-Voorhees said participants will gather at 3 p.m. at the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 203 Erie Blvd. E., for a service, featuring the Rev. Charles Rogers, pastor of St. James AME Church in New York Mills, as guest speaker. A 2 p.m. march from the church to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge and back will precede the service. The theme of the day's event is "Continuing the March - With Temperance." All are welcome.

• On Monday, the Mohawk Valley Frontiers will host its 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon beginning at noon at the Radisson Hotel-Utica Centre in downtown Utica. Randall J. VanWagoner, president of Mohawk Valley Community College, will be guest speaker. Student scholarships will be awarded and service awards presented. All are welcome. Dietre Harvey says reservations (315-534-4029) are preferred, but tickets will be available at the door.

• Attend the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., service at St. Paul's Baptist Church, 219 Leah St., Utica, beginning at 7 p.m. David Mathis said the service will be preceded by a memorial march - rain or shine -  beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the church. Sponsors include the Oneida County NAACP, Rev. Marilyn Bell, St. Paul's pastor, and the city of Utica.

And remember that Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision is something that should never lose focus. People throughout our community work tirelessly to spread King's message all year long.

Utican Patrick Johnson, for instance, continues to shine a light on racial injustice in our own community and has created an awareness that has caused us all to re-examine our own prejudices. His racial justice seminars are eye-openers, and everyone in the community is invited to attend one free of charge.

Consider it. Two day-long seminars are planned in the near future: Thursday, Jan. 25, and Thursday, Feb. 15. Both are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Utica Public Library, and include lunch.

All you need do is make a reservation by calling Johnson at 315-601-6002.

Half a century later, King's message resounds.