BY KIERNAN McCARTY
Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Social media floods with famous MLK quotes, photos, and hashtags on the third Monday of January each year for MLK Day, but acknowledging the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is more than simply admiring his character and good deeds on social media. MLK was a beacon for inspiring positive change toward ending racial segregation and gaining black voter’s rights, he was willing to be incarcerated and even put his life on the line for the cause.
In light of MLK’s Day of Service, it’s important to understand how we can apply his defining principles to the context of our own communities in order to work toward solving today’s racial and economic disparities.
Everyone knows that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, in summary, that all people, regardless of their race, would be treated as equal human beings in society. According to Share America, on The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Religion was a deep inspiration for King in forming his outlook on peace and human rights. Dr. King was a pastor in both his birthplace of Mongomery, Alabama and later in Atlanta with his father.
Preaching, for King, was a powerful catalyst for inspiring social change within his community, which pushed further the movement for Civil Rights. He also co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in 1956, which pushed for Civil Rights throughout the South.
A pastor and passionate activist and leader throughout his life, one of Dr. King’s involvements included his effort to establish the Poor People’s Campaign with the SCLC in 1968, shortly before his assassination in April of that same year. The goal of the campaign was to establish a coalition of poor people with diverse backgrounds to demand their economic and human rights as American citizens. It is still an active organization today.
In a report he gave to the SCLC in 1967, one year before the establishment of the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King is quoted as follows:
“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.”- Report to SCLC Staff, May 1967.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s values in peaceful confrontation are just one part of his much larger dream of what respecting and valuing black human life should look like in America, a country that prides itself on diversity and equal opportunity. In his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” which he delivered on the 4th of April, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King said this:
“…we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing‐ oriented” society to a “person‐oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered… True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth… A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” —“Beyond Vietnam” (April 1967)
When quoting MLK and attempting to truly honor him as an individual, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that his values and work reflected the notion that American societal culture is deeply rooted in a faulty system that places money, materialism, and property above the value of human life and genuine connection.
Even so, it seems that the phrase “Day of Service,” is often misunderstood or even omitted entirely from a lot of peoples’ observations of the national holiday due to the superficial understanding of his core values and work as it relates to selfless acts for the benefit of a broader community of people.
Unfortunately for modern-day Black Rights activists, those acts and words that were digestible to a society at large have often been co-opted and revered in a society that was and still is designed for profit and to benefit the white majority. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream will only come true if people wish to honor him by getting actively involved in the heart of the cause for human rights.
Students who are interested in getting involved in specific volunteer organizations to service the Hays community can look towards groups on campus such as the Black Student Union, Bigs on Campus, Arts For Social Change, Hispanic American Leadership Organization, Us 4 U, Gender & Sexuality Alliance, Save the Kids, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Social Work Club, Tiger Team, and so many others. You can find these organizations and more information on Tiger Link.