Did King Get Co-Opted?

Despite the slow start-up period, there are probably few Americans today who would argue that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not deserving of a day of recognition to honor his life and accomplishments. I was young when Congress established Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but my memories of those early years were uneventful. Literally. Nothing happened. We did not even get a day released from school because administrators and teachers were concerned that one more free day off out of the classroom meant one less day of instruction. In fact, I don’t actually remember talking about King in school, other than clarifying that, much to our disappointment, the new federal holiday would not result in a day off. I’m sure we discussed the civil rights movement, but in a nearly all white community I’m not so sure. In that context, our society has matured a great deal in the years since, but sometimes I think we may have missed the point.

On the morning of the designated holiday celebrating Dr. King I had a few errands to run. Waiting at the grocery store check out counter I tried to sift through the appropriate greetings to recognize the labor and service of my clerk on a day set aside to honor one of our venerable Nobel Peace Laureates. The first thing to come to mind was, “It’s not a day off, it’s a day ON!” No kidding. This guy works the checkstand 40 hours a week. Every day is a day on.

As I stepped away from the counter and thanked the clerk for his help I finally spit out, “enjoy the day of service.” This sentiment is possibly the only thing stupider than “a day ON!” that I could have uttered. He spends his 40-hours a week “on” serving anyone who walks through his checkstand. I realized the socially acceptable tribute to King is upside down.

In the quest to make Dr. King’s holiday a meaningful tribute to a national hero, civic and community leaders across the nation have relegated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to a day of community service. Relative to an empty three-day weekend when it is too cold for a barbecue anyway, encouraging people to devote at least one day to voluntary service projects in the community is charitable.

King was never about charity, though. King worked for equality. Though he was only human, he worked through nonviolent action to change power structures for the end of oppression. He was arrested, assaulted, bombed, and assassinated for his pursuit of peace. A mere day of service belittles Dr. King’s work, even those motivated by the best of intentions. What about a Day of Justice? A Day of Empowerment? A Day of Emancipation? A Day to Take a Stand?

There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to develop and follow their philanthropic instinct, and that piece of human consciousness that tells us we should make the world a better place. Some service projects in recognition of Dr. King even attempt to address civil rights issues. But the language of service and its charitable overtones suggest that western neoliberalism conquered the rhetoric, and with it the meaning of the day. Community service, according to civic engagement experts, helps us become better citizens, and helps build stronger communities and trust. Justice, however, means that we honor the full status of citizenship among all our human members. These concepts are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they synonymous.

What would a Day of Justice look like? Justice will be a day when the prison population is not overwhelmed by young men of color. Justice will be a day when academic achievement among students of color and poor students is on par with that of wealthy students from well-educated families, and that their histories are equally important. Justice will be a day when everyone has the opportunity to marry the love of their life and publicly and legally commit to a life of partnership. Justice will be a day when everyone can choose for their livelihood to be a doctor or plumber or singer or engineer or farmer, and get paid a fair wage for their labor. Justice will be a day when everyone can choose freely whether to engage in sexual contact, and whether, when and how many children to have. Justice will be a day when no one strikes out against another. Justice will be a day when everyone has a safe place to call home, enough nutritious food to eat, and adequate health care. Justice will be a day when everyone believes their vote – and their voice – counts for something.

Upending the power structure that maintains the status quo in an effort to bring justice to fruition is not an act of charity. It is an act of defiance. A day of service represents a hegemonic distraction. Most of us are comfortable enough in our lives even the good-deed doers among us do not experience injustice in a way that drives us to shake up the world, or take a shot in the in the name of change. It feels good to volunteer and help others. A day of service means I’ve done my part to make the world as it exists a better place. This is important, but what we need is a day to shatter the structural sources of injustice. That means I need to put myself out on the line. It means I need to be willing to take a risk.

A more fitting tribute to King might be a day to march on our local, state, and national capitals and demand justice. Our lawmakers have the power to change the tax code that privileges the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes. They can reform the system of corrections to reflect integrity and community building. They can reform labor laws, educational priorities and responsibilities, health care delivery (real reform this time), energy and housing policies, international aid priorities, and any other realm that prevents someone from exercising his or her full privileges of citizenship, whether it affects her or him politically, socially, or economically. Instead of a day to feel good about volunteering, a day to feel the anger of injustice and channel it toward those who hold the power, and the pursestrings, to remove the sources of injustice might be more effective in bringing the dream to life for everyone.

That puts the onus on us do-gooders to spend the rest of the year learning, teaching and acting on our most personally salient injustices, so that we can be logical and effective in our arguments and demonstrations for change. As disparate groups, however, we need to educate one another publicly on effectively reaching justice separately, so that we can find the commonalities and speak with a united voice in the shadow of Dr. King. I think of the quote attributed to the great civic leader Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Until we cry out for collective justice, with concrete, tangible demands for reform, the power structures will remain solidly in place, choking off some groups with a tease here or there to pacify others.

I have been complicit in simply accepting the day of service, and perhaps that is why I have found it ever-more hollow with each successive year. By coincidence, board meetings for Portland Women’s Crisis Line fall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Each year we honor King by reinforcing our commitment to the movement and holding a regular business meeting in service to our community. Each year I remind myself that every board meeting is an effort in bringing strength to the disempowered and solving the problems that allow gender-based violence to persist. Each month is a tiny step toward justice. Such incremental change is important, but it is not sufficient.

The dream looks more vivid now than it did in August of 1963, or even in April of 1968, but for many people it is still just a dream. I can no longer be satisfied with a mere day of service, even if it is in the name of empowerment or equality. With emphatic and unified action, the decision makers who uphold unfair power structures will have no choice but to pay attention. King’s work is not done. We can re-claim the meaning of the day Congress granted to recognize his work, and let them know we will not be satisfied until the dream becomes a reality for everyone.

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