In 1983, Former President Ronald Reagan signed off on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day as a federal holiday, and “saluted the slain civil rights leader as a man who ‘stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul”. Our society almost deifies this activist who wrote seminal speeches on race and poverty, and committed the last years of his life to one long protest against inequality. Why do we now celebrate his birthday by shunning political activity in favor of sprucing up government parks?
For over 30 years, we have commemorated the outspoken civil rights activist by doing everything possible to distract ourselves from the truth of his work. We engage in community service efforts ranging from reading to school children, to cleaning up public land, to helping out at animal shelters. Non-profits and government agencies gear up annually to reap the bounty of goodwill and free labor as volunteers are funneled into mostly non-political activities. Unfortunately, too many of these admirable projects do not address King’s causes—racism and economic justice.
In stark contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fellow organizers, such as Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), frequently sacrificed their freedom and their lives to oppose laws, politicians, government agencies, and business that perpetuated racial and economic oppression. As a religious leader, King might have chosen to devote his life to charity; instead, he openly and directly challenged the sources of the socioeconomic issues he deemed most egregious during his lifetime.
Labeled a race-baiter and rabble-rouser from his earliest days at the forefront of the Civil Right Movement, King did not temper down his message as his notoriety and media profile rose. He also saw and commented frequently on what we would refer to today as the intersectionality of various aspects of oppression. Reverend Demetrius S. Carolina, Executive Director of the Central Family Life Center in Staten Island NY, and member of NYC Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, writes:
“King’s work centered around the thought of equity, social justice and love. ‘To lift the individual is to lift the society.’ I believe he viewed the whole of human society by each member within having equal importance. We judge the whole of a nation by the way it treats the less of these.”
King stoically risked alienating his increasing supporters and long-term partners when he spoke against the futility of war, and the injustice of sending oppressed black soldiers to die for what the U.S. government claimed was democracy. In his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” he called out the people who questioned the wisdom of his public anti-war stance:
“…such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”
During the summer of political demonstrations and uprisings in 1968, King proclaimed, “the riot is the language of the unheard… America has failed to hear… that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.” King took the opportunity to frankly address poverty reduction and economic injustice, instead of using respectability politics to shame the people accused of rioting. In his work, All Labor Has Dignity, he wrote:
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
On the day he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. had been scheduled to support black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King recognized the link between poverty and racism. His attendance at the controversial labor movement for fair wages, safer working conditions, and job benefits had been the last service act of his life.
A dream deferred?
Progress has been made since Martin Luther King Jr. died, but inequality is still enmeshed in our society institutions, breaking many communities, particularly the poor, and people of color. The failures of our criminal justice system, for example, have been well documented as a major impediment to racial equality, and the purveyor of poverty in the destruction of black families. But President Obama failed to address police brutality in any of his eight SOTU addresses, and only briefly mentioned mass incarceration in the last one. If the first black president of the United States can’t talk about racial injustice, then we still have much work to do. We can move forward in King’s name only by first dealing with our cultivated aversion to advocacy for the oppressed.
At least once a year, American eyes will get misty upon hearing the oratory power of the “I Have a Dream” speech. But when activists shut down a shopping mall or demand that our politicians address the agenda of Black Lives Matter, we label them “inappropriate” or “thugs”. That nonviolence theory we associate with Dr. King hinges upon civil disobedience, which by definition means taking over spaces, and if necessary, breaking unjust laws. It does not involve waiting politely on the systems being challenged, for permission to speak up.
According to some respected estimates, 47 million people in U.S. live in poverty. Half a century after King wrote about poverty reduction and its role in perpetuating racism, a large number of the working poor today tend to be women and people of color, particularly African-Americans and Latinos. Curiously, some Americans who most admire Dr. King get agitated at the mention of policies that might address the socioeconomic challenges of low- and middle-income families: living wages, wage equality, family and medical leave, affordable housing, and affordable healthcare.
Qadry P. Harris, an emerging activist, Black Studies and Religion Scholar, and M.Div. candidate at Yale University says:
“The focal point of Dr. King’s approach to sociology and practical theology was his understanding that the religion of Jesus Christ is intended to be a tool of liberation for the disenfranchised. . .To celebrate Dr. King’s legacy without emphasizing and practically implementing this idea is the ultimate act of forgery.”
Yes, there are plenty of opportunities on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to serve at food banks, soup kitchens, and reading clinics. Still, these activities are aimed at temporarily alleviating the symptoms. King found it more effective to advocate for new frameworks and policies to address the persistence of poverty and injustice. I am still not sure however, what park cleanups – one of the most frequently listed activities – have to do with fighting racial and economic justice.
Consider, for example, that voter fraud today is still a rare occurrence. Remember those tears? We also let them roll for 1960’s era media footage of southern policemen beating up church ladies who attempted to vote. The sacrifices of King and those brave women contributed to the reality of a black president. But during President Obama’s presidency so far, at least 41 states have attempted to pass at least 181 voting restrictions—one of the largest trends since the era that birthed Jim Crow. Many of the proposed bills were geared towards ID requirements and voting periods, measures believed to increase disfranchisement of poor and black voters.
Where do we go from here?
Martin Luther King, Jr. effectively proved that nonviolence does not equate to non-confrontational or non-political. His causes, racial and economic justice, were controversial and his methods were radical. In fact, King’s tactics were sometimes even illegal. He dedicated his life to forcing the toughest conversations. Spending an entire generation promoting non-related, politically null community service detracts from why we deemed this man worthy of a holiday, and does the nation a disservice.
Rabbi Michael E. Feinberg, Executive Director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, says King’s mission:
“…required a profound overturning of the existing order – an order based on racism, economic exploitation, militarism. No less than a faith-based, social movement was required for the task – a task to which he ultimately gave his life. To truly honor the life of Dr. King, we pick up where he left off in this transformational project…nothing less does him justice.”
The galvanizing capacity of the holiday, therefore, should not be wasted. Unless, perhaps our preference for picking up trash to commemorate King’s birthday (rather than advocating openly and directly for equality) say more about us than we wish to admit.