With every year of celebrating MLK Day of Service, the national holiday honoring the civil rights leader, it seems our country drifts further away from the ideals that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived and died for. Since the inception of MLK Day, there has been not only a callous monetization of King’s image, but also a watering down of his radical message.
As another MLK Day approaches, some of the major issues King tirelessly fought against persist with brutal familiarity. King called for pacifism, guaranteed incomes to eradicate poverty as a major goal of his Poor People’s Campaign, expansion of voter rights, fair housing, and reparations for African Americans. Yet year after year, people co-opt Martin Luther King Jr. Day to issue empty pronouncements about “equality” while fighting against those causes dear to King.
Take President Donald Trump, who tweeted about equality on last year’s MLK Day as a publicity stunt – while his track record includes decimating key portions the Voting Rights Act, rolling back efforts to expand affordable housing, and his racist and xenophobic comments, all diametrically opposed to King’s egalitarian message.
MLK Day is widely celebrated as a Day of Service — which we see especially in Philadelphia, a region that had a unique influence on King’s philosophy that the holiday has since diluted. The city currently hosts the largest King Day event in the country: the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. Seven decades ago, the city played a central role for King himself. He began his philosophical and theological journey arriving at Crozer Theological Seminary as a 19-year-old student in 1948 and was mentored by the Rev. J. Pius Barbour, Crozer’s first black graduate and pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester, where King served as a youth minister. He also audited courses at the University of Pennsylvania. And a sermon at the Fellowship House in Philadelphia by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the first black president of Howard University, introduced King to teachings of Mohandas Gandhi that became foundational to his philosophy of nonviolent activism.
King further forged alliances with like-minded, progressive black ministers at Philadelphia churches, such as Dr. William H. Gray Jr., pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, and Zion Baptist Church’s Rev. Leon Sullivan, who shared his successful boycotting tactics with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference team.
In other words, Philadelphia was one of King’s most reliable bases in the North that helped shape his vision of freedom for black people.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Philadelphia honoring that legacy through community service, limiting the day to generic volunteerism, here or elsewhere, is a gross misrepresentation of King’s radical message. It also allows the holiday to be co-opted by those who would rather stand for colorblindness – like the Wall Street Journal, where an op-ed last year declared King a “colorblind radical” -- instead of the racial justice that framed his platform.
It took a significant movement to create the MLK holiday in the first place. Four days after King’s April 1968 assassination, Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D., Mich.) introduced the first bill to establish King’s Jan. 15 birthday as a federal holiday. Also that year, Sen. Edward Brooke (R., Mass.), the only African American senator at the time, put forth legislation seeking the authorization of the president to issue a yearly proclamation designating Jan. 15 as Martin Luther King Day. It was another 15 years before an American president – Ronald Reagan, who long had reservations toward King – signed the holiday into law.
Now, we need another bold MLK holiday movement. But this time it needs to organize action. We can start with fair housing, eradicating poverty, women’s and LGBTQIA rights, a living wage for all Americans, and investing in our public school systems.
If the MLK holiday is to be more than just a day when the U.S. soothes the guilt of inequality from our collective consciousness, then it’s crucial that our city and our nation fight for, reflect upon, and embody the values — beyond basic community service — that King courageously stood for.