Yesterday, my family and I had the pleasure of attending a MLK celebration co-presented by WNYC and the Apollo Theater. It was co-hosted by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and my friend Farai Chideya, who’s an award-winning multimedia journalist and NYU professor. What was cool about the program is that it brought together a variety of voices and perspectives. We heard the many panelists reflect on everything from King’s legacy to how we can use the inspiration of his life and words to power our push for changes that are still needed today. [NOTE: You can check out excerpts here.] And it’s not just the concern for “civil rights” that brings people together around Dr. King, rather the need to address human rights and dignity, unchecked capitalism and economic inequality. In some way, shape or form, these are issues that touch us all.
It’s a national holiday, but many people find themselves at work. They’ve got employers who either don’t close the office or make it “optional”, i.e., a floating holiday. It’s a day to celebrate Dr. King, but we’re still going to try to hit productivity and profit goals. We’re going to try to move that project a bit further down the road. As if it won’t be there tomorrow. This devalues the whole point of the holiday. It’s yet another way that we don’t fully appreciate the legacy of Dr. King’s life and work. We certainly aren’t appreciating what he was trying to get us to understand about ourselves as a nation.
Here’s what he said about capitalism in Strength To Love, his collection of sermons that was published in 1963:
Our unswerving devotion to monopolistic capitalism makes us more concerned about the economic security of the captains of industry than for the laboring men whose seat and skills keep industry functioning. (p. 32)
Dr. King also reminds us that it’s critical to think beyond the narrow interests of our immediate group, be that race, gender, sexual orientation or, on a larger scale, our country. It’s so easy to forget this and we often do. So today is a critical day that can serve to remind us of our shared humanity, where we can model that concern and compassion to our children. Again, in Strength To Love, he writes:
True altruism is more than the capacity to pity; it is the capacity to sympathize …Pity may arise from interest in an abstraction called humanity, but sympathy grows out of a concerns for a particular needy human being who lies at life’s roadside.…Our missionary efforts fail when they are based on pity, rather than true compassion. Instead of seeking to do something “with” the African and Asian peoples, we have too often sought only to do something “for” them. An expression of pity devoid of genuine sympathy, leads to a new form of paternalism which no self-respecting person can accept. (p. 35)
It’s easy to like Dr. King in the abstract–the March on Washington, the “I Have A Dream” speech–than it is to do the work of putting his philosophy into practice in our daily lives. That requires us to make real effort and do the hard work. Too many of us don’t want to do this.
Here’s how I’d suggest you think about the King holiday:
- Take the day off. It’s a national holiday. Those of you whose employers offer it as a floating holiday, take it. It won’t kill you to get away from your spreadsheets, proposals, emails and recurring meetings. It signals to your colleagues and business associates that you value the holiday, and they should too. It’s like that last week between Christmas and New Years: So many businesses are closed because they know no one else is around doing business.
- Go to a King celebration in your community. There are tons all over the country. If you have a family, take them. Be in a room full of other people celebrating the holiday. Soak up the sites and sounds. You’ll get more inspired that you will sitting around your home binging on Netflix. It’ll also provide you with a great jumping off point to talk to your kids about some of the issues facing us today.
- Read some of his writings. The aforementioned Strength To Love is great, but so is Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Much of what King wrote about wasn’t just about “civil rights,” a commonly easy way a lot of people casually dismiss the larger significance of his work. That’s code language for “it doesn’t concern me, it’s just for Black people.” But how we treat, and care for, each other are issues that we should all be concerned with. For example, if you’re down with the idea of fairness, Dr. King had a lot to say about ensuring fair wages and making sure everyone has access to vote. That’s what America’s supposed to be about. Shout out to ThinkProgress here.
- Share some of Dr. King’s quotes among your family. One of the things my family and I will do today is that each of us will find a quote to bring to dinner. We’ll share the quote and talk about why it resonates with us. It’s simple, but it can get a great conversation started.
- Make a commitment to volunteer. We should all use this day to recommit to giving our time, energy and attention to community- faith- or arts-based organizations. These are organizations that provide both cultural and social infrastructure to our communities locally, nationally and globally. They could use your talents. Because noblesse oblige. To whom much is given, much is expected. And if you’re sitting here reading this, you can find time to give back in some way.
- Channel your passions in ways that benefits others. This is what made Dr. King dangerous. I wrote about that a few years ago, still think it’s okay for us to each be “dangerous” in that way.
The trick is for us all to find ways to put Dr. King’s teachings into practice. If we could do this, the cumulative impact would be awesome. But, first, we’ve got to get off the treadmill for a day and acknowledge Dr. King as more than some abstract icon that too many only laud out of political correctness.