Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a nice guy

Volunteering at soup kitchens and painting schools is great, but that’s not how Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the world.

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The United States declared Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday in 1983. Since then, it has come to be celebrated as a “Day of Service,” which usually translates to volunteering in one’s community doing nice things like painting murals, picking up trash, or donating blood.

These are in themselves good things to do, but to associate MLK with volunteering is to misrepresent his life and his legacy.

Dr. King was not a volunteer. He was a revolutionary.

He did not just “work to make things better in his own community.” He wasn’t a kindly Santa Claus figure who wearily sighed, “Can’t we all just get along?”

He did not just “have a dream.” He acted on his convictions, risking––and ultimately, losing––his life to challenge the status quo of injustice. He led marches and strikes and went to jail for breaking unfair laws.

And we have every reason to believe that, had he been allowed to live, he would have continued protesting racism, war, and economic exploitation.

It’s obviously impossible to expect a country to have a nationally-designated “Day of Revolution,” but what if instead of volunteering, we had a national “Day of Reckoning” on Dr. King’s birthday? What if we read, listened, and reflected on his words and whether we have achieved the future he imagined? (What does it mean, for instance, that some states celebrate segregationist leaders on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr.?) What if we expected the country to live up to what this leader demanded? And we were expected to take action to fix the ways in which it doesn’t?

Some people are doing just that. Three years ago, Black activists called for Americans to #ReclaimMLK––sparking articles, conversations, and protests that connect Dr. King’s vision to the present day.

This year #ReclaimMLK is a week-long call to action, with each day focusing on a different theme.

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These efforts are led by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 racial justice and civil and human rights organizations. However we can, wherever we are, I hope we can heed their call to “embrace all parts of King’s legacy.”

Learn more and find planned actions here.

*About the title of this post: recently, I have been reflecting on how challenging injustice is not “nice” or “polite” behavior. Activism requires confronting injustice and making “good trouble” and challenging “the way things are.” Dr. King was willing to stand up for his beliefs. He angered and inconvenienced both people in power and people who agreed with him but believed we should “wait for things to get better in due time.” That is what I mean when I say he was not a nice guy. In the face of injustice, I don’t believe any of us should be “nice.”

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Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a nice guy