Service or Revolution?
The photo above is of the new sculpture to be unveiled on Boston Common on January 13, 2023. Titled Embrace, the Hank Willis Thomas work memorializes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, who met in Boston. Every year at this time (this time being the approach to the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday), I wonder at the focus on service as part of the day. So I decided to look into it.
Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday in 1983, when Representative Katie Hall of Indiana, a Black woman, overcame arguments regarding the costs of establishing a holiday on January 15, King’s birthday, by proposing that it be set for the third Monday in January. (Long weekends are less costly to the federal government than holidays that fall mid-week.) President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.
In 1994, as the result of legislation proposed by Representative John Lewis, hero of the civil rights movement and an ongoing inspiration to social change activists, and Senator Harris Wofford, former civil rights attorney and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., a commission was established to promote service opportunities that would promote “a day of interracial cooperation, antiyouth [sic] violence efforts, and community service.” Lewis and Wofford stated they wanted to avoid turning the holiday into a day of shopping. Not surprisingly, the bill was opposed by Senator Jesse Helms, who argued against spending taxpayer money on such an effort.
It’s hard to object to anything supported by John Lewis and opposed by Jesse Helms, and I am glad that throughout the country, MLK Day is marked by public events of various kinds. I manage to attend a community event involving music, moving speeches, and community outreach nearly every year and come away the better for it. Nonetheless, I question the idea, promoted by such events, that Martin Luther King believed that racism and other social ills would be resolved by love and service.
He certainly advocated both. But King was not the revered and symbolic figure he is today during his lifetime. Hounded and wiretapped by the FBI, he faced numerous threats on his life as well as on the lives of his family members. (His house was bombed in 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, while his wife Coretta and his young daughter where in the house.) The assassination attempt that killed him was hardly the first attempt. He was seen as a threat because he called for overturning the structures of militarism and capitalism.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” King argued. “It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
To riff on the old “if you give a person a fish” adage, I would say, “If you give a person a fish, they will eat for one day; if you give a person access to the fishing waters and to the tools needed to catch the fish, they will eat for the rest of their lives.”
King, of course, is more eloquent and more Biblically inspired: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” ”
May his words continue to inspire us throughout the year to come.
(Thanks to Brian Jones, “Martin Luther King’s Revolution,” for quotations used in this post.)