A day of volunteering in honor of Martin Luther King misses the point

Dr. Martin Luther King is shown speaking at a amass meeting in front of all-white Girard College in Philadelphia on  August 4

Dr. Martin Luther King is shown speaking at a amass meeting in front of all-white Girard College in Philadelphia on August 4

Monday, Jan. 16, is Martin Luther King Day. It is also known as MLK Day of Service, when volunteers are organized and sent out to do good works for one day in Martin Luther King’s name.

The day of service is sponsored by major corporations and nonprofits. Politicians and celebrities pitch in for photo ops where they volunteer. It creates a warm, fuzzy, feel-good event in the middle of cold January. But is it truly free-will volunteering when people do it because their employers compel them, or because the work fulfills an educational requirement, garners publicity, or results in tax deductions?

I think focusing on volunteering misses the point. Martin Luther King wasn’t assassinated because he wanted to volunteer.

The feel-good, corporate-friendly media photo op glosses over racism as though the issues that MLK and others fought and died for are in the distant black-and-white television news past. I think it ignores the ongoing issues of racism, classism, and the deep lack of sympathy and regard many people have for others in our society and around the world.

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The MLK Day of Service website doesn’t even mention the “word racism.” “Historic Girard College” is used as the “King Day of Service hub.” No mention is made of years of lawsuits in the ’60s to integrate Girard College, which was intended for white boys. In 1968 the Supreme Court ruled that Girard College had violated the 14th Amendment. Since then non-white boys and eventually girls were admitted. I think that would be an important educational lesson on MLK Day.

As Barack Obama noted in his farewell speech, we did not enter a post-racial America because he was elected president.

During Obama’s entire scandal-free presidency, he and his family constantly suffered lurid, explicit, irrational racist attacks.

I think that MLK Day of Remembrance should be used to look at our world honestly and question why we are so cruel to each other.

Why do some think it is moral to allow people to be poor, hungry, uneducated, homeless, and without healthcare? What societal change do they expect will come from this? Why do the self-righteous enjoy seeing other people suffer? It isn’t as though there aren’t enough resources to share. We even privatize prisons so incarceration can be monetized. This means that there has to be a constant flow of prisoners for profit. Why isn’t any of this seen as obviously, morally wrong?

How do we pick and choose who to rescue — whether it’s not admitting Jews to the U.S. during the Holocaust, or choosing to intervene in Serbia but not in Rwanda or Syria? In the 19th century the Irish weren’t considered white so it was all right for the English to allow them to starve during the famine when food was available. When they arrived in the U.S. they were discriminated against and even their churches were burnt down. What does it take for someone to be sympathetic?

How do we solve the Israeli-Palestinian issues? Does Israel asserting its need for protection mean it is racist? How does someone tell the difference between someone who is pro-Palestinian and someone who is anti-Semitic? Why can’t people live next door to each other if they all proclaim to believe in the same god? I don’t even pretend to have the answer to that question.

President Obama said, “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

Why does everything have to be black or white? How do we facilitate communication between whites, blacks, and other minorities so that all of our issues are addressed?

Donald Trump, a man widely regarded as a racist, who has little sympathy for vulnerable people has been elected President of the United States. All of the gains that Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, Emmitt Till, James Cheyney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Paul Guihard, Medgar Evers, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and countless others fought and died for may be reversed.

We don’t need another photo op. We should spend Martin Luther King Day of Remembrance examining racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the ways our society is unjust to the powerless.

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