As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day this week, we do so, as we have officially since 1995, under the banner of “service.” Spend the day “making a difference,” we are instructed, “giving back” or “giving to others.” As a way of marking the holiday, this is better than sitting at home and listening to the “I Have a Dream” speech on the radio, but it’s not a whole lot better. The problem is that service, as we have come to understand and practice it, is antithetical to King’s whole message and mission.
The Civil Rights Movement did not speak in terms of service; it spoke in terms of justice and equality—ideas that make much larger and more dangerous demands. It was an effort of self-empowerment, not something that some people did for others. Although it welcomed sympathetic whites, it was conceived, led, staffed, and largely populated by African Americans. Its method was not volunteerism but resistance: legal action and nonviolent protest. Its call was not for private philanthropy but muscular public action. It was not a part-time recreation but the unrelenting work of many years. And after its principal legislative victories, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King began to organize upon the recognition that justice is not just juridical, and that the removal of legal impediments would not be enough to achieve equality. In 1967, he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, speaking now not only of civil rights, but of economic rights and human rights, as well. The centerpiece of the campaign, before it was derailed by King’s assassination, was to have been a mass transracial march of poor people on Washington.
If King thought in terms of service at all, he surely did so in its Biblical meaning. Serve God, the Children of Israel are told, not Pharaoh. Serve God, Christ says, not Caesar. That is who you are serving when you perform service in that sense. It’s not like serving a meal, or a customer. It’s not transactional but existential. It’s about humility, not condescension. But now we have a very different concept. “Giving back,” “giving to others”: this is the language of charity, enforcing ideas of debtorship, disempowerment, hierarchy, and social relations as economic exchange. It is us vs. them, rich vs. poor, white vs. black and brown, the server and the served—not solidarity and mutual identification and working together toward a larger form of justice that embraces us all. It isn’t even noblesse oblige, because there’s no “oblige,” no concept of obligation or social duty. “Service” is a flock of middle-class messiahs descending in all their virtue, with a great deal of self-satisfaction, every once in a while, when they remember to think about it, upon the miserable and helpless.
Rather than “the superficial motions of volunteerism,” as the writer and activist Tammy Kim has put it in a similar context, how about celebrating King’s holiday in King’s way? How about a day of mobilization and protest, an annual march on Washington, a chance to call the powers that be to account for their progress, during the intervening 12 months, in alleviating poverty, redressing inequality, fostering opportunity, and continuing the ongoing work of eliminating racial injustice. “Service” is those who have doing for those who don’t. Mobilization is the much more threatening possibility that those who don’t might take some power for themselves. Which is exactly, of course, what King was all about.
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