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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.


  • Wright

    Like Clinton MLK suffered the same Moral character failure by having sex outside their marriage while portraying them selves as married family men. Clinton was a President but Martin Luther King was a Reverend. He totally dishonored his Wife and the sanctity of his church . The example to be the fore runner of the modern TV evangelist

  • Vanness Johnson


  • Michelle Johnson

    I have felt something akin to a switch-up. I knew that we were focusing predominately on the non-violent MLK and that it was his final speeches that were deemed the most controversial. The spirit of THAT Martin was conveniently swept away. Perhaps because Martin was onto something? His views were evolving as a disillusioned liberal into something more characteristic of a black nationalist. I’d be curious to know if this day of service is what he envisioned and if an Obama presidency satisfies the struggle for equality that he protested for. Questions aside, it was a wonderful day of commemoration and inauguration.

  • JlyLarkspur

    Sir, I am not sure what you are asking us to do. If serving our communities is not enough, what then? You talk about “justice” as if it can be accomplished with the wave of the hand. We cannot solve homelessness or joblessness without solving the problems of education, drug abuse, and mental illness. We can’t solve the problem of foreclosures unless people are only allowed to mortgage an amount they can afford. How are WE, the few people who want to be involved in caring for our communities, solve these problems? Our elected officials seem to have no moral desire to fix these things. Until they do, we can only perform our own small efforts on an individual basis.


    Like MLK has been forgotten except for the day off gained?

    Millions in Texas need help. Millions of all colors of families and their children. Texas is no place to be poor or any color.

    The state of the state by facts.Not opinions or ill made

    Our elected and
    appointed officials should not be able to ignore the constitution when they
    chose to or when it is favorable and less trouble than looking at it. Our officials
    seem to place themselves above us after in offices in a god like manor I guess.
    With one sweep of the hand millions of families are not important enough.
    Millions of votes could be gained doing the right thing and showing people you
    mean what you said trying to get elected or appointed. Of course that would be
    votes from people with no money or corporations to use as power.

    We have wolves
    guarding the hen house. That is bad enough. But when that is used to commit
    frauds, deny rights, and create scams. It is wrong. It should be a sin. We are
    being treated just like the saying goes-Like trailer trash. The entire world
    and every state of our union has made this illegal because of the health
    hazards that are guaranteed to be
    created. The mechanical problems that are guaranteed to be caused is also a
    long list of reasons, used by all, to make it not pass codes and make it
    illegal. It is illegal in every home or office in Texas. Except for the one
    place that our law makers decided it can be made legal. In manufactured homes
    only. Nice way to keep it segregated. Legally? The TDLR sees all this as an
    opportunity to abuse their power and scam the poorest homeowners in Texas. It also shows large corporations and others
    that Texas will bend the rules to get them here. The side effects of it all
    cost only the poor. So who cares about that? An act of terrorism is what it is
    called when I state the truth. Not one A/C company or License and Regulations
    office in this entire country can defend this action of the TDLR. Not one
    school of Air Conditioning or Environment. Not any TDLR A/C expert. They all
    can not come up with just one good thing it does for any consumer. TDLR can
    only say it is legal in manufactured homes only because that is the way we do
    it in Texas. That is a quote from them not made up or my comment. There are
    over 40 facts and legitimate reasons that prove this should never be done
    anywhere. It is illegal in the zoos of Texas. It causes damage to A/C. It waste
    electricity because of efficiency loss. It causes 100% humidity after a few
    years of operation. It requires two filters every two weeks per TDLR to keep it
    clean. How many do any of you use at your office or home? It could all be fixed
    with one filter and one tie-in in the correct places and installed correctly.
    Not one cent of extra cost to anyone. It
    has nothing to do with materials used. It is only the way they are legally
    allowed to be used and installed.

    Consumers are denied
    the installation method that HVAC manufacturers use as standard and “required”
    installation method instructions. It voids their warranty when it is installed
    the Texas manufactured home only method.
    Consumers are placed in a guaranteed to have created health hazards
    environment when this is allowed.
    Consumers rights are denied.
    Consumer protection is denied.
    Consumer safety is denied.
    Consumers effective operation and maintenance of mechanical equipment is
    denied . Home owners rights are denied. But only one branded consumer gets all
    this done by its government. This is done in Texas only. This is done to
    manufactured homeowners only. This is done to people who pay for a four ton A/C
    system but legally get a sabotage set-up put in place instead because of
    nothing but the type of home their family lives in. 100% humidity after a few
    years of the flawed set-up. Just another result of the set-up that occurs with
    nothing but time and operation of the improperly installed HVAC system. The U
    haul climate controlled self storage units can not use this set-up. It would never pass codes.

    The safe and effective
    air handling that is required for all people by laws is eliminated completely
    and immediately upon installation in the legal for mobile homes only method.
    All laws and codes say it is illegal in any other home or office of America.

    It is damage causing
    and wrong. It is easy to prove how wrong and damage causing it is to install
    A/C equipment in the Texas mobile home only fashion. It is against all
    installation codes for every other building in this entire country. Some one
    official should see the red flags? Why are we chosen for the sabotaged, unsafe,
    most expensive running cost A/C set-up that is possible?

    It would not cost the
    builders one cent to do it correctly. It would not cost any installer of A/C
    one cent to install it the way A/C manufacturers designed it to be done. Every HVAC manufacturer on this planet says:
    “it voids our warranty”. My homeowners insurance (that is required) states :
    “we do not pay for damages that are caused by improper installation of
    appliances or equipment”. Clayton Homes says “call the A/C company that installed it”. Action Aire says
    : “call Clayton Homes”. After years of complaining to both Action Aire says to
    call the TDLR. The Texas Department of License and Regulation.

    TDLR is the place
    that makes this provable damage causing system legal , but in manufactured
    homes only. There are many details and very many facts left out of this letter.
    I call the TDLR damage causing. I have much more and every statement here
    (especially TDLR’s damage causing system) can be proven without a doubt. That is to any one or to any court. Or to any
    HVAC expert any where. TheTDLR denies that as a consumer right also. Wrong
    opinions are used to make laws that effect millions of families and that number
    grows yearly. Proof means nothing. Because it is legal? There are damage
    causing laws being used that is for sure. What does the Consumer Protection
    Agency stand for? Who do they protect when it comes to provable scams and
    fraud? Not Us. All places that help citizens or consumers say it is not their job to look into this.
    Just look at the years of honest work that could be created to repair this
    flawed installation method. Millions of customers would need the service.