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Michael Leo OwensBack to OpinionMichael Leo Owens

A “Day On” for what?

Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t dream of service. He dreamt of justice.

The vision King shared for America nearly fifty years ago was more than seeing a colorblind society. It was “to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” And, as King observed years later on the night before his assassination, those in service of justice for a better nation needed to possess and demonstrate “a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” Yet much of the service done on the holiday in his name is safe, leaving inequities of wealth, power, and opportunities unchallenged. The day demands more.

In 1983, following 15 years of debate after King’s murder, our nation chose to annually commemorate his contributions to American democracy. It took nine more years for a federal law –the King Holiday and Service Act of 1994 – to officially associate the King holiday to service in the mind of the body politic. Ever since then Americans have known MLK Day as a day of service.

Service on MLK Day is fitting. King saw service as a vehicle for humans to be better beings: “Everybody can be great,” he reminded us, “because everybody can serve.” Accordingly, the Obama Administration’s United We Serve initiative and a recent email message by Mrs. Obama encourage Americans to serve their neighbors and communities in remembrance of MLK. The Obamas and others see MLK Day as a special “Day On” in service for building the “beloved community.” As my grandma used to tell me during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when activists marched, sang, and lobbied for the King holiday (and when I argued with her for me to stay home from school on his birthday), “Dr. King didn’t die for a day off.”

King served the civil rights movement and nation, however, in a quest for expanding racial equality, social justice, human dignity and rights, and worker fairness. His style of service involved strong-minded, hard-nosed, body-suffering sacrifice and activism that was reform-oriented. It’s a style unfashionable in the USA on his day.
A majority of American adults, except for black ones, don’t do anything to commemorate the King Holiday. Maybe it’s because most employers refuse workers a paid (or unpaid) day off for service. Annual surveys of companies suggest that 70 percent of businesses don’t observe MLK Day by giving their employees a paid holiday. Or perhaps many do nothing because they believe America has realized the dream of racial equality, ignoring the broader objective of justice. In a 2011 Gallup poll, 51 percent agreed the nation has achieved this dream, with another 23 percent believing the nation has made great progress towards it.

And when the minority of us serve on MLK Day our service is simple (e.g., making meals for the hungry, painting interior walls of schools in poor neighborhoods, and mulching walking trails). On MLK Day in 2012, for instance, I planted trees in the Atlanta neighborhood of King’s childhood home, his daddy’s church, his crypt, and a well-visited national historic site named after him. I served in the Old Fourth Ward with a racially integrated group students, staff, and faculty from my university. Planting trees in the primarily black, working-class neighborhood made sense. While part of a city in a forest (as anyone with vision sees flying into or out of Atlanta’s airport), the Old Fourth Ward is nearly denuded of trees. More trees would soften its concrete, brick, and asphalt landscape, and maybe bolster community pride in the midst of economic recession.
As we dug holes, planted, and backfilled, residents – black and white, impoverished and prosperous – came out of their homes and chatted—with each other. They didn’t regard our service. Why, I wondered as I watered. It was likely because we served them, not with them. Our service also didn’t empower them. It didn’t create mutual obligation and reciprocity, necessary for fostering friendship and sustaining fellowship. And it certainly didn’t do justice to the neighborhood, given the manifestations of inequality (e.g., homelessness, foreclosures, joblessness) we left behind at the end of our service.

To be sure, King would’ve valued our service, including our generosity of time. Deliberately working across races on something for others was better than nothing. Plus, our service exposed many of us, especially the students, to a tangible place with problems (and assets). It invited some of us to inquire of the causes of its needs for our service. Nevertheless, I suspect that Dr. King would’ve questioned why our service wasn’t deeper, more justice-focused.

“The ultimate measure of a man,” King wrote, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Yet too much of our service in MLK’s memory accommodates our wants for comfort and convenience, when challenge, controversy, and righteous conflict are required to overcome enduring inequities rooted in race, compounded by class, incarceration, and polarization. In that way, we water King’s activism down to simply “service,” diluting his legacy and forgetting the best part of his dream—justice.

Michael Leo Owens is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project and a professor of political science at Emory University. He is the author of God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America.