Monday, January 19, 2015

What kind of revolution did Dr. King claim? One of community projects or one of social justice?

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)

In college I was a supporter of the law that made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Even then, I understood that there would be a price to pay. Governments and corporations tend to co-opt popular observances for their own self-serving ends.

I continue to be an avid observant of MLK Day, but I am constantly reminded of how its institutionalization has muted and snuffed out most of the radicalism of Dr. King's message. "I Have a Dream" often replaces the nightmare Dr. King said that he found in the nation's slums. Some want to focus strictly on integration (which Dr. King called "a struggle to get rid of extremist behavior") while they ignore what Dr. King called "genuine equality" which involves "hard economic and social issues" and "survival of a world within which to be integrated."

Jeremy Kane volunteers for MLKDay
We continue to see the muffling of Dr. King's message in 2015 in Nashville, especially from candidates running for office. Metro Council candidates are promoting the national day of service, even though voluntarism has little to do with MLK's self-identity: "if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice." Mayoral candidates are joining in volunteer activities without talking about what they would do if elected to curb the excesses of income inequality that lead to what Dr. King called "spiritual death."

Emphasizing a day of service gives politicos and corporations a shelter free of the undue risk of "genuine equality" and the weightier matters of social justice. Public-private partnerships are perfect vehicles for softening the sharp edges of MLK's message while seizing on the glow of his mass popularity. However, they are of no help in joining Dr. King to go out into a hostile world and boldly challenge the status quo. Public-private partnerships are the status quo. By not taking bold stands they have the air of safe neutrality. However, in the same sermon where Dr. King spoke of going into hostile world, he observed with Dante that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.

Ultimately, the co-opting and switch of the MLK brand from economic justice to community service is ironic. Dr. King died in Memphis while supporting sanitation workers striking for wage increases and better working conditions. Not only do community service days do nothing to advance the cause of better pay and safer work for employees, but some clean-up and trash-pick-up volunteer efforts create more work for sanitation employees who haul it off to landfills generally located in poorer communities. Projects can be more of an obstacle to survival in a world within which to be integrated.

I participate in community projects and I encourage others to do the same at any point in the calendar. But let us not confuse and water down Dr. King's revolutionary message with the idea that community service projects authentically commemorate his work.

UPDATE:  I'm not the only one thinking this way. In Philadelphia today 6,000 organized in "a more assertive, confrontational vision of King's legacy" intentionally departing from the national day of service:
"While we recognize the importance of service, Dr. King was not assassinated because of his charity work. He was assassinated because he challenged the status quo," said the Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, a leader of the new MLK D.A.R.E. coalition. "We only do honor to his memory if we continue to fight the same fight."

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