Martin. Many people have spoken his name, even fewer have lived by his ethic. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is more than what we remember him as. The pieces of him that we find agreeable are the ones that we place on social media and teach in our classrooms.
Today, we celebrate the parts of Dr. King that give us hope and champion non-violence, but dismiss and downplay how we murdered him, then, for criticizing this nation’s obsession with racism, capitalism, and militarism.
It is both saddening and enraging that the social conditions that King spent his life confronting are eerily similar to what we are experiencing today.
Anti-Racist, Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Imperialist
Dr. King’s actions flowed from his faith which grounded him in love—love both in word and in deed. What many of us have failed to do as individuals and as parts of institutions is interrogate how we benefit from the status quo and renounce white supremacy completely.
After a summer of anti-racist statements and reading lists, some people have been quick to condemn the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but that same energy isn’t kept when the U.S. attempts the same abroad. After having politicians kneel in African cloth in supposed solidarity with Black lives, promised Covid stimulus relief grows smaller and smaller while debt increases and we are having to convince our representatives that $15 an hour is the very least workers deserve.
The King who was killed in 1968 was a threat to the nation—not just because of his calls for racial justice, but because he spoke out against the Vietnam war and sought to unite the overworked and underpaid with his Poor People's Campaign. These “evils” he spoke of are still collaborating together to destroy the historically oppressed and oppressive.
Along with the uptick in anti-racist resources, we must also add anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist sources to have an analysis and praxis similar to King and many of his contemporaries.
READ | Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World (The Atlantic)
Service Won’t Fix It
For all that is wrong with the world, service projects won't fix it. Gradual reforms won't fix it. These are band-aids on a festering wound. We cannot passively wait and hope for things to get better. We cannot slow down and wait for permission to fight for freedom and justice. King speaks of gradualism saying:
[G]radualism is little more than escapism and do-nothingism, which ends up in stand-stillism...now is the time to make real the promises of democracy...Now is the time to lift our nation. [Applause] Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of racial justice. Now is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time.
We must move past simple “days of service” and grow into the radical change King lived for (and was killed because of). If a service-learning program offers nothing more than momentary relief for communities and warm feelings for “do-gooders” and performative allies, the root of the issues people face daily will never be resolved, only talked about. This is why quality education, orientation, and training are necessary for a quality alternative break. This is why alternative breaks should lead to direct action within your own community.
You cannot claim to believe in the values of Dr. King unless you’re willing to embody the radical, revolutionary life he would preach and teach about. Rather than solely working within systems that only address symptoms (i.e. service projects), joining or forming an organization can directly challenge the causes of hunger, houselessness, environmental destruction, and so much more.
What are the grassroot organizations you’ll partner with past MLK’s Day of Remembrance? How will you go about addressing the immediate needs and dangers caused by the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, and the evil of war?
In his final speech on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, Dr. King said to the Memphis sanitation workers on strike:
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
To those of us fighting for our freedom: we do not need another King; we need to learn how to support one another. Black freedom fighters such as Ella Baker teach us that power belongs to the people, collectively—not a savior-figure, not our favorite elected officials, the militarized police, or even the non-profit industrial complex.
Reading lists are only the beginning
What comes next is ACTION. But if service alone is not a lasting or effective solution, what action can be taken?
EXPLORE FURTHER | The King Philosophy (Beloved Community)
Growing into beloved community is how we honor the work of Dr. King 365 days a year. Begin where you are and we may get past where we’ve been.