50 years after Martin Luther King was slain, debate simmers on how to honor him
Some deplore the idea of King as a person who represented only community service, seeing such portrayals as sanitizing a man who was radical enough to denounce war and advocate international peace.
People across the city and suburbs will take the day off work Monday to honor Martin Luther King Jr.: with volunteering, fund-raising, conversations.
And some say, reclaiming.
Almost 50 years after his April 4, 1968, assassination, many are rethinking how Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed. Should the slain civil rights leader be honored with quiet contemplation or community-service projects, as best represented by the 23rd-annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service? Or, in times when police shootings of black people have come under more scrutiny, when the sitting president makes racist remarks about black and brown immigrants, should the day be marked by protest, rallies, or teach-ins?
"You've got to do more than simply go into a school and paint a wall," said the Rev. Gregory Holston, the executive director of POWER, a mostly clergy-based social justice group that stands for Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild. POWER is a member of the MLK DARE coalition that advocates for a Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment.
"You've got to ask yourself why you have to paint that wall every year," he said. "What kind of public funds are not coming into the schools for education and maintaining our schools in a healthy condition?"
When the federal holiday was first observed in 1986, Philadelphia marked the occasion with one main event, a national bell-ringing ceremony sponsored by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence Inc, followed by its annual Awards and Benefit Luncheon, usually at the Sheraton Downtown Philadelphia. (Rosa Parks was the bell ringer and honoree two years later.)
By 1996, the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service was launched — what was initially coined as a day not to be off, but one to be on — and it eventually became the most-recognized event to honor King's memory.
But in 2015, with more zealous voices advocating an activist approach to honoring King, the DARE Coalition called for massive protests in the streets to fight against a criminal justice system they saw as unjust, inadequate schools, and low wages for airport and restaurant workers.
The DARE coalition said it was about "reclaiming" the real Martin Luther King, a radical who protested the Vietnam War and called for economic justice for poor people, and not a sanitized version of King — a man only of peace and nonviolence — often taught in schools.
"Martin Luther King was a man of action and a man of social justice," said Holston. "In the limited understanding of what people have about service, we thought that [volunteer service] was a diminishing of who he was."
To that end, Holston wants to motivate the 150,000 people who are expected to volunteer with the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service, led by Todd Bernstein, to turn the day into a year of action. (Bernstein, president of Global Citizen, a nonpartisan organization to promote civic engagement, said he now matches volunteers with organizations throughout the year that need help for their community service projects.)
As for what to do Monday, Holston said he plans to go to Day of Service opening events at Girard College. But then he and other DARE coalition members will attend A People's Call to Action, Rally and Teach-Ins at Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia, from 1 to 4 p.m. The rally will be inside the school, 2150 Lehigh Ave., from 1 to 2:15 p.m. A teach-in on various topics, including criminal justice, economic justice, and climate change will run from 2:30 to 4 p.m.
But the debate continues on Twitter. Even the Rev. Bernice King, King's youngest child, has waded into the discussions about how to best remember her father.
On Thursday, King wrote: "I'm grateful for the ways we step up to serve others on #MLKDay. Let's continue. Let's also do work & have conversations that reflect my father's main thing: eradicating the Triple Evils of racism (privilege + power), poverty (materialism) & war (militarism). #MLK #MLK50Forward.
And earlier this year: "People not being 'judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character' is just a part of my father's dream. Read the entire 'I Have a Dream' speech + 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' + 'Beyond Vietnam' + etc. Let's be weaned off of #MLK-lite.
Joye Nottage, executive director of the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence, which holds the fund-raiser luncheon and award ceremony, notes that the organization founded by her aunt, the late C. Delores Tucker, and other activists 35 years ago, is the oldest organization to honor King.
It was King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who asked Tucker in 1983 to start an organization that would be affiliated with the King Center in Atlanta.
The association just held its children's Christmas dinner, at which it provides toys for low-income children, and it continues to work with high school students to help prepare them for college. But the association has not gotten the same attention as programs such as Bernstein's Day of Service, Nottage said. Its funding, too, has diminished since the time when then-Sen. Arlen Specter provided it earmarks.
"I don't have a problem with the Day of Service," Nottage said. "But there are other ways to remember him. We have to remember his life and legacy and honor those people in the community whose ideas are those of King's and who are working every day."
Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, an immigrant rights organization, will take part in the DARE Coalition's rally and teach-in at Dobbins High School on Monday. She relates King's beliefs to Juntos' mission.
"He went from talking about racism to the war in Vietnam. It was about militarization," she said. "We look at it at Juntos as not just war, but it's the war in this country about low wages for people of color, it's the over-policing, it's the [immigration] raids.
"When ICE goes into people's homes and kicks down doors with guns pointed, there are children in the room. I know if King were alive today, he would stand with us."
Howard Stevenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor of Africana studies, said that for him, the King holiday is about "a time for reflection — a protest from within."
As the keynote speaker for a program at the African American Museum of Philadelphia called "Owning the Dream: Taking Personal Responsibility," he said the day is a good time for people to deal with "the emotional costs of activism and being on the front lines."
Bruce Crawley, who owns a Philadelphia communications company, has been one of the African Americans who, over the years, challenged Bernstein's Day of Service because he was "trying to tell black people how to honor King."
"The one legal federal holiday for African Americans and you want to tell them they have to go to work — for free," Crawley said "…The next day, members of organized labor will go to work and do the same job and they will get paid."
That Bernstein is white is not what Crawley thinks is bothersome, he said. He would have problems with anyone "telling our people to work for free again. We did that for 250 years. Go tell Italians to go to work on Columbus Day or the Irish to work on St. Patrick's Day."
For his part, Bernstein has had many conversations — in fact, he acknowledges he's been yelled at — with a number of African Americans over the years, and he understands why some are critical of the Day of Service.
"I wouldn't judge anyone for how they celebrate King Day," Bernstein said. "The beautiful thing is that people take ownership and feel empowered to make a difference in the way that they want."
The Rev. David W. Brown, executive director of NewCORE, or a New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity, says his friendship with Bernstein grew after the two began having talks about concerns from some in the African American community about "this white guy is trying to take over" the holiday.
"That kind of narrative pits one group against the other," Brown said. "I think, and this is the pastor in me, there's room for everybody in the tent."