(A three-part series refocusing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement)
Every year on the third Monday in January we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to honor Dr. King’s life and leadership. Although this recognition is a testament to how far our country has come since the civil rights era, it should also serve as a reminder that our country has a long way to go to truly achieve the just society Dr. King envisioned. When the Martin Luther King Day of Service was created in 1994, it was a step in the right direction, as the initiative turned the holiday into a day of volunteerism and community service. This was a well intended idea indeed, but wouldn’t Dr. King look for us to commemorate his legacy with social justice action as opposed to just social service?
I’m certain that Dr. King would have asked us to advocate and agitate to achieve the victories still needed to improve our communities and honor his legacy. As a man of big ideas and grand gestures, Dr. King and many others used principles of nonviolence to achieve in one decade the civil rights victories that had eluded our people for nearly a century. And yet, 25 years after MLK day was first observed as a federal holiday, many people choose to recognize the day in a manner in which Dr. King didn’t necessarily live his life. In the days leading up to Dr. King’s death, he was in Memphis to support and advocate on behalf of Black sanitation workers that were striking to receive their civil and labor rights. In Dr. King’s last speech, the day before his untimely death, he gave notice to us then and now as to his vision on how we should move forward:
Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Community service is incredibly important, and clearly there are not enough local, state and federal programs encouraging us to help our communities to affect change from the ground level. But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not “Human Rights Day,” as it was referred to in Utah as recently as 2000 by state legislators who refused to give Dr. King his due. And it is certainly not “Lee-Jackson-King Day,” Virginia’s name for the holiday until 2000; a warm salute to pro-slavery confederate leaders and completely disrespectful of Dr. King’s life.
When Dr. King was in Memphis, he wasn’t there to pick up the trash left on the street by the striking workers; he was there to advocate with them for equal pay and justice. When Dr. King was in Montgomery he wasn’t there to just march for peace; he was leading a boycott of Black community members against a segregated busing system. When you’re in your community, are you focused on the ways you can provide a service for your neighbor, or are you advocating and agitating for permanent systematic changes to improve your neighbors’ lives?
As a young community and campus organizer, I oftentimes felt insignificant in the movement, like I couldn’t really make a sustained difference to better the condition of so many Black families in this country. As a “civil rights leader” working for the NAACP I’ve also felt insecure and scared when handling various cases of injustice and racial hatred. However, I’ve also been fully aware that it is my duty as a beneficiary of so many civil rights workers before me to continue to push toward justice in this country. And although it can be a bit easier and a less threatening to solve problems with volunteerism, it’s vital for our success to address issues with long term social justice advocacy, agitation and action.
So as the title of Dr. King’s moving book, Why We Can’t Wait, reminds us, we can’t afford to sit idly by expecting others to do the work necessary to bring positive changes and corrective policies for our communities. Let’s honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s true legacy of social justice by heading his call to action today…Dr. King is waiting.