Michael Coard, a lawyer who led the fight to tell how George Washington held enslaved African Americans at the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, has called for Philadelphians to rethink the observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday by refusing to attend the MLK Day of Service.
Coard said he is disturbed that the largest single event celebrating King was created and is led by a white man, Todd Bernstein, the president of Global Citizen and founder of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.
“I mean no disrespect to any white person, but we have to stop white people from appropriating Dr. King and get them to start appreciating Dr. King,” Coard said in an interview Friday, three days before the national celebration of King’s legacy. “You don’t appreciate this radical, you don’t appreciate this revolutionary, you don’t appreciate this antiwar activist, this poor people’s leader, by forcing people to work, by forcing people to engage in service.
”Dr. King never told black people to clean up. He told white people to straighten up."
Coard repeated his call later Friday evening to about 300 people at the third annual “Radical MLK Symposium” at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. While the crowd predominantly consisted of black people, scores of white, Asian, and Latino people were there as well.
“Do not attend the Day of Service,” Coard told the crowd. “If I as a man, and I’m a feminist, show up at a women’s meeting, I’m going to sit in the back, listen and ask, What can I do to help? I’m not going to take over the meeting.”
He said he would rather see black Americans focus on a “Day of Knowledge” or political education where people discussed the speeches and books King wrote.
Bernstein, who began promoting the “Day of Service” program 25 years ago, said the event “is not about me.”
“This is about 150,000 people of all ages and all backgrounds who have engaged in a community-building process of determining what is the best course of action in how to spend their day on Monday celebrating Dr. King," he said. "This is not about us.”
People will gather at Girard College on Monday, and at other sites around the region, to participate in community service projects. Bernstein said there will also be panel discussions about black women in the suffrage movement.
The fact that votes are still being suppressed today and the importance of being counted in the 2020 census will also be on the program at the Day of Service, he said.
“I understand there are people who feel that the radical side of Dr. King hasn’t been recognized enough,” Bernstein said. “I think that’s fair. But I don’t think that should nullify the choice of tens of thousands of people who make a decision on how to celebrate his life and legacy by turning their community concern into citizen action."
In a Facebook post, Coard said one white man stopped him as he was leaving the Germantown church “to tell me I was wrong and that he believes it’s acceptable for white people to lead Black events and also to lead Black movements. I almost had a Django moment. But I just shook my head and walked away.”
Coard said he considers Bernstein to be a friend and had a cordial conversation with him Friday: “We agreed to meet soon."