This year, we had the disjointed task of celebrating Dr. King’s birthday on the precipice of a government set to go backward on many of the very issues important to him. Some folks think of Dr. King’s call as an opportunity to volunteer, participate in days of service (known in the Jewish world as “mitzvah days”) and engage in other social action-related events, tying direct service to Dr. King’s call “to serve.”
This work is exceedingly worthwhile; service is an important way to address the immediate ills of society while working for the systemic change needed to eliminate these ills. And yet, I struggle with this misinterpretation of Dr. King’s legacy each and every year. These kinds of direct service are not the main kind of service at the center of Dr. King’s life work. Dr King stood for love and serving others, yes, but his understanding of the Bible’s call to love your neighbor was through radical racial and economic justice. As he wrote, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” His service involved giving his voice, his strategy, and his life to attacking systemic injustices–helping to restructure the edifice itself. His methods included direct nonviolent collective action–including strikes and boycotts–political advocacy, lobbying, building coalitions, convincing and challenging adversaries, and speaking truth to power. He was a key player in a community organized bus boycott that lasted more than a year, went to jail countless times for nonviolent protest, sacrificed his working relationship with President Johnson in order to repeatedly challenge him on the Vietnam War, and was in Memphis supporting striking public workers when he was assassinated.
There are crucially important ways that you can honor Dr. King’s work and legacy by helping to restructure the edifice, especially at this time when leaders of the next government are talking about cutting the social safety net and rolling back civil rights protections.
Here are some ways that you can honor Dr. King’s legacy:
- Are there racial justice groups (for example, Black Lives Matter or Showing Up For Racial Justice) or immigration justice groups (United We Dream) in your area doing anything to mark the day? Perhaps they’re holding a rally, teach in, demonstration, press conference, training, advocacy day? Begin the work of building relationships with other people working on these issues in your community.
- Economic empowerment was a huge component of Dr. King’s work and legacy. Are there labor unions, Fight for 15 chapters, Farm workers, carwasheros, laundry workers, international labor rights advocates out on strike or doing anything to mark the day? Perhaps they’re holding a rally, teach in, demonstration, press conference, training, advocacy day? Find out what they’re doing and go out and support.
- Are there other organizations working on issues at the intersection of racial and economic justice work, such as housing justice and criminal justice reform, that are doing anything to mark the day? Are they holding a rally, teach in, demonstration, press conference, training, advocacy day?
- Is there a picket line or a direct action that could use donations of time and / or resources?
- The Voting Rights Act, one of the hallmark national legislative victories Dr. King was a part of winning in his lifetime, was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, which in 2013 struck down one key provision and rendered another key provision unenforceable. This, coupled with horrific gerrymandering and restrictive voter laws, are among many of the things that make it extremely difficult for people of color to have their voices heard fairly in the electoral process. What local groups are working on this issue near you?
- Enter the district office and legislative office phone numbers for all your elected officials (federal, state, and local) into your phone. Are the nominations to the Cabinet you can call your US Senators about? Are there bills around racial justice you can advocate for? Are there measures cutting the social safety net to which you can register your opposition? Check to see if racial and economic justice groups have highlighted nominees and legislative policies about which you can visit or call your city, state, or federal elected official.
Dr. King once said, “I believe that we can work within the framework of our democracy to make for a better distribution of wealth, and I believe that God has left enough and to spare in this world for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life. I will never be satisfied, and I will never be content, until all men and all women can have the basic necessities of life.”¹
Hopefully, this list gives us a few ideas of how to carry this mission forward to make America more just. Here’s hoping we all can be more worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.
Russ Agdern is Director of Recruitment and Outreach for Avodah and has spent the last 15 years of his life as one of many organizers trying to push America to “be true to what you said on paper.”²
crossposted to Jewschool
¹Speech given to RWDSU Local 65, September 8, 1962 in Monticello, NY
²from the I’ve Been to the Mountaintop Speech, April 3rd, 1968