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.


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.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a nice guy

Mother’s Day, another rad holiday

People told me that they liked my post on Cinco de Mayo last week, so this week I present to you another edition of Rad Holidays We Don’t Know Anything About: Mother’s Day Edition!

It wasn’t until last year that I learned that Mother’s Day was conceived as an anti-war holiday. It wasn’t a day to celebrate moms (although that’s neat, too. Hiii, Mom!). It was a day for mothers to speak out against war.

“Mother’s Day for Peace,” that’s the full name of the holiday we celebrate every second Sunday in May. Julia Ward Howe introduced the idea in 1870 with her “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” Calling for international peace, Howe wrote, “We the women of one country are too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

In 1872, Howe called for Mother’s Day for Peace to become an annual holiday to be celebrated every June 2. It was celebrated as such until President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday in 1914. His “Mother’s Day Proclamation” mentioned nothing about peace and moved the holiday to May.

I know governments wage war, but I find it alarming that President Wilson didn’t even mention peace as a long-term goal. What does this say about this country’s values? And what can we do to change them?

Check out 8 Ways to Reclaim Mother’s Day. And Happy Mother’s Day to mi mamá and all the other moms who read this blog!

Mother’s Day, another rad holiday

Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is about more than margaritas and som-BRAY-roes (you know sombrero is just the Spanish word for hat, right?). Holidays that reduce cultures to stereotypes and alcoholic drinks have never seemed that fun to me, but I am especially upset by the way Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo because so few people know what the holiday commemorates.

On 5 May 1862, the Mexican army defeated the French army in battle. It was a David-and-Goliath victory because the French troops were better prepared and had superior equipment. At the time, the U.S. government feared that if France defeated Mexico, the French military would advance to the U.S. and help the Confederate army in the Civil War, so their defeat was cause for celebration in the States. The U.S. government was grateful to Mexico for stopping the French army and, in effect, protecting the U.S.

I heard someone lamenting that people celebrate Cinco de Mayo by going to trendy restaurants and bars that serve “Mexican-inspired” food but are owned by non-Mexicans. She encouraged her friends to patronize Mexican-owned businesses instead, but I think this holiday should be about much more. Currently much of the conversation around migration from the Global South to the United States centers on immigrants as undeserving people who come to take jobs, education, and benefits from U.S.-born people who ‘deserve’ it. Even conversations about amnesty and compassion focus on extending a helping hand to people in need instead of recognizing the myriad ways we are connected.

This year, on the fifth of May, in addition to eating tacos, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on interdependence, what it means to be good neighbors, and how you can put up a fence to keep people out, but you’ll never be able to erase our shared history.

I also recommend you watch the documentary Who is Dayani Cristal? as soon as you can.

Additional posts on transnationalism and immigration here and here.

Cinco de Mayo