[Ed note: A version of this story first ran in 2016, on the Friday before Martin Luther King Day. It is still relevant—perhaps more so—today.]
On Monday, newspapers and local TV news stations will all dutifully cover what is, indeed, a singular accomplishment. To mark Martin Luther King Day, some 140,000 Philadelphians will turn out to participate in more than 1,800 community service projects throughout the region.
I’m old enough to remember the birth of the MLK Day of Service, after it was established in the mid-’90s by legislation co-authored by our then-U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, both of whom stood alongside King during the civil rights movement.
I remember the offense some African-American leaders took when it was announced that the project would be led by a Wofford protege, who was, and remains, white and Jewish. I remember the halting first steps: the 1,000 volunteers in year one, gradually growing thereafter.
The criticism of Todd Bernstein, who remains the head of the project, is even louder now than it was 25 years ago, encapsulated this weekend by comments from lawyer/activist Michael Coard, cofounder of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, who urged African Americans not to participate in the day. “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 told The Inquirer’s Valerie Russ. “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.”
The latter part of Coard’s critique is right on: The mainstream media has sanitized and caricatured King through the decades, effectively erasing the radicalism of his last years prompted by his moral outrage over the Vietnam War. But that narrative has been shaped by both white and black storytellers.
To lambaste Bernstein because of the color of his skin is to actually depart from King, who, even in his 1968 radical reinvention, never rejected his “content of their character” point of view. To the end, King embraced white allies like his longtime friend and advisor Stanley Levison in the struggle for justice, and his Poor People’s Campaign focused on black and white victims of economic violence.
Bernstein is someone who comes alive talking about race and social justice. He has built the day into a juggernaut. No other city turns out so many volunteers performing so many acts of community service. “For me, this day has always been about what it means to be a citizen, and the responsibility that you have,” a harried Bernstein said when I caught up with him yesterday. “We’re trying to build sustainable civic engagement by honoring Dr. King’s legacy.”
Of course, the danger is that we get satisfied with one day of service. “I don’t disagree,” says Bernstein. “Part of the problem is the name: King Day of Service. We want the day to really be a springboard for widespread civic engagement.”
So Bernstein’s nonprofit organization, Global Citizen, spearheads events and programs year-round. In 2009, they launched MLK365, an effort to link volunteers with community organizations every day of the year. They host annual race dialogues. And, when matching volunteers with community groups, they try to practice what King preached.
“For me, this day has always been about what it means to be a citizen, and the responsibility that you have,” says Bernstein. “We’re trying to build sustainable civic engagement by honoring Dr. King’s legacy.”
“Our principal focus is on breaking down barriers,” Bernstein says. “We very deliberately match people with others who are unlike them—economically, racially, in terms of religion. Through active service, you can bring people together so they realize what they have in common.”
Bernstein is right when he says that civic engagement has to start somewhere, and that perhaps one day preparing food at homeless shelters or distributing meals to homebound seniors will jumpstart bigger commitments.
But the media critic in me is concerned that we’re too often sanitizing King, and thereby heeding his call less and less every year. Earlier this week, organizers unveiled a dramatic King Day of Service mural painted by students from six area schools. It focuses on a 1955 speech King gave at the Holt Street Baptist Church to the organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It’s a cool mural, and it’s in keeping with the racial justice theme of King Day this year. But we too often get a skewed view of King’s popularity, at the same time that we get a whitewashing of his last years.
King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was in 1963. When we see it now, we naturally think he must have been beloved, right? Not quite. Three years later, a nationwide Gallup poll found that only a third of Americans had positive feelings about King.
I love that Philly leads the nation in terms of community service on King day, but I suspect that King would say that’s not near enough. “True compassion,” he once said, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Looking at King today, he seems gentle and nonthreatening; in reality, he was seen as a dangerous threat back then. (I’m reminded of the way another ’60s radical poet, Muhammad Ali, only became a darling of the press once he lost the power of speech.) And, critically, he evolved into even more of one.
The King of 1967 and 1968 is missing from our national story. Why? Maybe because he grew more radical as he moved from race to class. He seized on the huge gaps between the haves and have-nots and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society.” He was talking about income equality and redistributing wealth long before Bernie Sanders—and in a far more in-your-face way than the Vermont senator.
King saw the connection between the drain that was the war in Vietnam and poverty at home. He called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” when he came out against the war. Can you imagine someone saying that today? Before he died, he was organizing poor black and white people to rise up, and was roundly excoriated, called a demagogue and unpatriotic by major media outlets, who wanted him to stick to anti-discrimination efforts.
We don’t get that King on the news or in the papers, but I’ll be thinking of the increasingly embattled, radical civil rights icon on Monday. I love that Philly leads the nation in terms of community service on King day, but I suspect that King would say that’s not near enough.
“True compassion,” he once said, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” So, yes, let’s honor King by serving on Monday, but come Tuesday, let’s also salute him by identifying and working to overcome those systemic roadblocks that keep us from serving the common good.Header photo courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia / Steve Weinik.