It was another Martin Luther King Jr. Day, more airing of his “I have a dream” speech, and tens of thousands of people serving all over the nation from painting day care centers to picking up garbage, cleaning up shelters, and feeding the hungry. For us at HIP, it was our Senior Meals day at the Lake City Community Center, and we served close to 90 hot meals, freshly prepared in our kitchen by a lovely group of volunteers. It is indeed heartwarming to see so many volunteers dedicated to serve on their day off from work or school, and the passion to do something good in their community. We are grateful to have volunteers that make it possible for us to continue the services we provide.
On my drive to work in the morning, I was listening to the radio. Whichever channel you dial to, it’s hard to miss Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. the same is true on my Facebook feed. And, what an inspiring speech it is! I have listened to that speech so many times over the years, but it never fails to give me the goosebumps. However, that’s not the only inspiring speech he has given in his lifetime. So why do we mostly get to hear that particular one? Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you about Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence and his leadership on civil rights. With some rare exceptions, that is pretty much all we hear about him, at least in the mainstream media. We have boxed him in that shiny frame that makes everyone feel comfortable. That is something, it seems, we can all get behind.
While Dr. King never wavered from his principle of nonviolence, he also understood why oppressed people sometimes resort to violence. He didn’t directly support a riot when he said “a riot is the language of the unheard” (“The Other America,” 1968), but he showed that his idea of nonviolence was far from maintaining order, especially when that order was part of an unjust system. While he made immense contributions in advancing civil rights in this country, and inspired people worldwide, that was not his only achievement. He stood up for economic justice and political reform when he said:
“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” (“The Three Evils of Society,” 1967)
In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King sharply criticizes US militarism and the inordinate amount of money we spend on our military budget:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” (“Beyond Vietnam,” 1967)
Perhaps, these are not as easy for us to hear. They make us uncomfortable. And, uncomfortable we must be, given where we are, with respect to racial injustice, economic inequality, and military spending, almost half a century after Dr. King championed those causes.
Dr. King didn’t just serve, he led and participated in many civil disobedience movements, broke laws to disrupt status quo, went to prison many times, and was a relentless advocate for changing unjust policies. He didn’t remain silent in the face of injustice, often at a huge cost to his personal life. To reduce a federal holiday honoring Dr. King to just a day of service is to misrepresent his legacy, and dishonor what he really stood for. Service is great and necessary, but we shouldn’t stop there. He eloquently reminds us that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963). As we serve, we will do good to remember his words:
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring”. (“Beyond Vietnam,” 1967)
People who are hungry, need food now. A child who is hungry, can’t wait for us to change the system before she can be fed. But at the same time, unless we also address the root causes of hunger, whether it’s poverty or food sovereignty, our work will always be incomplete.