[Ed note: This story first ran in 2016, on Martin Luther King Day. It was a rebuttal to an article by Citizen editor Larry Platt from a few days earlier.]
At least one thing remains consistent: Almost a half century after his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. is still a lightning-rod figure who brings people into serious, and often intense, discussion.
This is especially true in Philadelphia, where some 140,000 people turned out today for the annual Martin Luther King Day of Service, a day of volunteer charitable activities designed to reflect good will and unity. This activity, the largest of its kind in the nation, is coordinated by Global Citizen 365 and brings together people from all sectors of the region to paint, clean and to serve the underserved. It’s a lot of good things being done by a lot of good people, in memory of a person who is almost universally regarded as a good man.
But, surprisingly, there are a lot of people who don’t see that as a good thing!
The reasons are myriad. For some it begins with the fact that the director of Global Citizen (and therefore, of the Day of Service) is a white, Jewish man–Todd Bernstein. To his credit, Bernstein is no johnny-come-lately to this type of thing; he’s been there from the very beginning, and is recognized as deeply committed to both the legacy of Dr. King, and to Civil Rights in general. But King’s “color of their skin, (and) content of their character” quote notwithstanding, it bothers a few folks that Bernstein just doesn’t look enough like Dr. King.
And then there are those, like Citizen editor Larry Platt, who perceive the Day of Service as a caricature of King and what he stood for. These folks view the hand-holding, feel-good, Kumbaya emphasis on peace and charitable service toward the less fortunate as a focus on the more malleable side of King–a man who was a first class disrupter of the status quo! They point out the fact that Martin Luther King wasn’t on the FBI’s watch list because of his congenial nature; nor did he get arrested regularly and become a target for assassination because he made a whole lot of folks feel good.
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These folks would remind you that King was probably more likely to afflict the comfortable than comfort the afflicted; and that a day in his honor must include elements that would discomfort the status quo. Absent a vigorous reflection of King as disrupter, this group views the Day of Service as a palliative for the “haves” that would dare to co-opt the memory and mission of a man who would still be disrupting on behalf of the “have-nots.”
And finally, others would suggest that there is something about the “service” aspect of the day that seems incongruous with the philosophy of Dr. King. While King often addressed the existential need to take on the mind of a servant, this emphasis was never a part of his mass organizing efforts. Dr. King’s dream did not include people painting walls or making sandwiches for the poor; instead King viewed the gatherings in which he participated as demonstrations aimed in opposition to the forces of unjust power. In the type of spiritual battle to which he felt called–and to which he called others–a servile spirit simply would not meet the demand.
As a black preacher, and as a media person, I have heard all of these reasonable objectives offered in protest to the growing popularity of the King Day of Service. After some reflection I have come to the conclusion that those who offer the aforementioned concerns are absolutely right in what they affirm!
Todd Bernstein is, and seems intent on remaining, both white and Jewish.
People do tend to caricature Dr. King as Saint Martin, the Humble Servant;
and focusing on service at the expense of the soul force necessary to topple evil power structures (which is more reflective of King’s philosophy) is a distortion.
But while I agree that the complainants are right in what they affirm, I believe that they are also wrong because of what they deny.
We would be shortsighted if we were to deny the efficacy of the leadership of Todd Bernstein, and the impact that Global Citizen 365 has had over the last two decades in creating synergies and dialogue that live on far beyond the one Day of Service. Not only that, but the fact that Bernstein is not black suggests that Dr. King’s vision of a Beloved Community, where equality and justice allow for inclusiveness, is being actualized in a practical, meaningful way.
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And while the Day of Service does not fully capture all of Dr. King’s spirit and essence, still we cannot deny that it captures some. Though protest and disruption were a part of Dr. King’s repertoire, it should be noted that they were the means, not the end. The end goal of Dr. King’s efforts was the creation of a Beloved Community, where cooperation was raised above conflict, and unity prevailed over disruptive strife. He alluded to this in a speech offered in 1956:
…the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.
Lastly, though volunteer service was not the focus of his mass organizing efforts, who can deny that Dr. King was passionately invested in the idea of service? One of his best known quotes distilled this concern; “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” As a Christian minister, King had to be drawn to the image of Jesus as a servant, and invoked the image often, even though it was not the focus of his mass social engagement efforts.
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What I have discovered over the years is that we spend far too much time grabbing a part of Martin Luther King, Jr. to use as a club to fight against others who have grabbed another part of Dr. King. Like blind men trying to limit the description of an elephant to the part that we are currently touching and feeling, we fail to allow for a whole picture to emerge in our zeal to establish the truth according to “us.”
But there is enough Dr. King to go around for all of us to emphasize the parts that we hold most dear, without having to go to war against others who focus on another part altogether.
So whether you paint or protest, serve food or serve a court-ordered injunction, all of these activities are worthy elements within the wide-ranging legacy of Dr. King. And though we may differ when we come to the table, perhaps we might all be wise to remember that the spirit of a man who called it a “table of Brotherhood” has invited us.
And that is a good thing for good people to do, as we seek to honor the memory of a good man.
Nick Taliaferro is the host of the afternoon drive-time Nick Taliaferro Show on WURD-AM.