…the easiest way to get rid of Martin Luther King Jr. is to worship him. To honor him with a holiday that he never would have wanted. To celebrate his birth and his death without committing ourselves to his vision and his love. It is a lot easier to praise a dead hero than to recognize and follow a living prophet.
Rev. Charles Adams
In many ways, I think turning King into a holiday was the worst thing to do for his legacy. On the one hand, having him as a holiday (and the very name “holiday” evokes leisure, not serious study or appreciation) at least requires that we collectively acknowledge his contributions. However, Americans–black and white–have this tendency to distort images to suit narrow needs essentially destroying a powerful legacy and message.
We are prone to selective amnesia. We will remember that he was nonviolent yet forget he felt conflicted about teaching peace at home when we were so violent abroad; he fought against racism yet realized that the capitalist system devastated the poor and depressed them further; he professed a great love for black women yet cheated on his wife til the day he died, felt that he could find nothing beautiful in a dark skinned black woman, and stole the idea of the “poor people’s campaign” from an african american women’s organization; he believed in integration yet he also believed that separatism was healthy and necessary for blacks to progress; he recognized that we must use race in order to eradicate racism.
All of these bits of neglect serve social functions–to support the attack on affirmative action; to eclipse the problems and negative consequences of capitalism; to silence the contributions of black women to black liberation; to ridicule and dismiss black youths; to endorse feelings of victimization over resistance and power; to soothe feelings of guilt over oppression; and a host of other dreadful counterproductive actions.
And the fact that he was turned into a holiday by a anti-black anti-working/middle class administration makes me all the more weary the purpose and usage of this day.
My wishes for MLK day?:
1. Retire the “I Have a Dream Speech.” He made over 300 speeches at the height of his career. Surely we love him enough to read some of them.
2. Read about the civil rights movement from a different perspective. Women, for example, were instrumental in the civil rights movement but the patriarchal structure of the church made their voices difficult to hear. Or how about how people abroad–mainly in Africa–reacted to the civil rights movement? Countries throughout the continent were liberated during the same time period and the parallels are fascinating.
3. Commit to giving back. Throughout the country people are encouraged to volunteer on Dr. King’s birthday. Instead of making it a one time thing, why not be an ongoing giver in terms of time and money. Buttress your giving by learning about the cause or community you plan to serve through research and dialogue. Once you make giving and learning a part of your life, you begin the process breaking down barriers.
When it comes to leadership and learning lessons the best thing to look at is how a leader evolves over their lifetime and what shaped their growth.