The MLK Day of Service Forgets What King Stood For
Photo: Francis Miller/Getty Images

The MLK Day of Service Forgets What King Stood For

The federal holiday needs a rebrand

In the half century since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the civil rights icon’s legacy has been transformed. A revolutionary prophet has become a symbol of peace and colorblindness for the appeasement of White guilt. And much of that distortion stems from the federal holiday that carries his name.

Nearly 37 years after the enactment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which was rebranded Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in 1994), King’s radical vision has been severely diminished. Instead of remembering one of the truth-telling, agitating anchors of the struggle against racial oppression, we’re left with a desensitized, neutered version of King that mischaracterizes the essence of his vision.

King’s analysis of racism and White supremacy as interwoven into the fabric of American culture has been baptized in the murky waters of an I-don’t-see-color ideology, one that erases his rightful anger and hunger for justice. The federal government and retail institutions alike have commercialized his image, diluting what was, in truth, the man’s radical political agenda. In its place is a softened, distilled version of King’s message that has systematically invaded the public consciousness, perpetuated yearly via the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

While today celebrates the non-threatening perception of King, toward the end of his life, he’d lost the admiration of the American establishment for his anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist stance. A 1966 Gallup Poll revealed that two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable view of him; just two years after he’d been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and named Time magazine’s Man of the Year, middle America had turned its back on King. Then, on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, King gave a speech opposing the Vietnam War. It wasn’t his first anti-war speech, but it ignited a firestorm. “Dr. King can only antagonize opinion in this country instead of winning recruits to the peace movement by recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis,” wrote the New York Times’ editorial board days later, calling his speech both “facile” and “slander.”

When it comes to the revolutionary aspects of King’s life and work, America has developed convenient amnesia.

By then, the federal government had considered King an enemy of the state for more than a decade. The FBI had kept King under surveillance since 1955, just as they’d done with Malcolm X and would later do with the Black Panther Party. After the March on Washington in 1963, the agency’s head of domestic intelligence dubbed King the “most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro, and national security.” In fact, King was one of the top targets of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who utilized the agency’s resources to discredit him and the civil rights movement.

In 1968, four days after King’s assassination in Memphis, Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced the first bill to establish King’s birthday (January 15) as a federal holiday. The same day, Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke, the first African American elected to the Senate, introduced a resolution calling for similar legislation, “calling on the people to commemorate the life and service to his country and its citizens of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior, to observe that day with appropriate honors, ceremonies, and prayers.”

It took more than 15 years of grassroots organizing and political maneuvering for the holiday bill finally became law; President Ronald Reagan went against years of documented opposition and signed the King holiday bill on November 2, 1983, making King the only private American citizen to be commemorated with a federal holiday.

However, it also set in motion the undoing of King’s revolutionary identity. In a 2017 Boston Review article, scholars Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella wrote that “Reagan’s rendition of King as committed, first and foremost, to a colorblind society and therefore opposed to any and all race-conscious remedies to racial injustice… has proven essential to the rising influence of colorblind ideology. As a public figure of official and White memorialization, King has become the de facto patron saint of colorblind ideology, his historical memory, and his radical political critique be damned.” From the very beginning, MLK Day did more to ease White guilt than it did to uplift King’s radical, egalitarian vision.

For MLK Day to have any significant meaning, it must be reclaimed from its current state of shallowness and reimagined with King’s vision as the guiding premise.

Although King vehemently opposed economic inequality and stood firmly against the tenets of capitalism run amok, the January holiday that bears his name was a commercial venture from the outset. In a 2007 Nation article, historian William P. Jones argued that “By the time Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday, few observers remembered its origins… The corporatizing of King’s image was obvious in the theme of the King Center’s 1983 birthday celebration: Free Enterprise: An Agent for Nonviolent Social Change… In a particularly ironic twist, the King Center secured permission to sell images of King — an outspoken critic of war — on U.S. military bases around the world.” Profiting from King’s image and message is already antithetical to the principles he held dear; doing so for the same military complex he lambasted only compounds the crime.

While King often spoke about the importance of service, to reduce the totality of his ideals to a day of volunteerism vastly diminishes his contributions to American society. He was more than just a believer in nonviolence as a way of living in a racist society. Yet for the most part, his legacy has been reduced to a few refrains from his “I Have a Dream” speech, trotted out once a year by brands and politicians on social media. In fact, conservative politicians and pundits have co-opted these parts of his speech to usurp initiatives such as affirmative action and reparations, both of which King wholeheartedly supported.

All this stems from the reality that when it comes to the revolutionary aspects of King’s life and work, America has developed convenient amnesia. In the introduction to his book The Radical King, Cornel West contends, “The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies… Could it be that we know so little of the radical King because such courage defies our market-driven world?”

For MLK Day to have any significant meaning, it must be reclaimed from its current state of shallowness and reimagined with King’s vision as the guiding premise. If not, MLK Day will continue to be just another day, and King’s radical vision will fade into oblivion.