Most holidays are about taking a day off in celebration, remembrance, or acknowledgment. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. In other words, today is a day to celebrate, remember, and acknowledge through engagement with the community as opposed to the couch. You may be out of the office, but there is so much other work to be done.
This is the 30th anniversary of the day honoring the activist, clergyman, and iconic civil rights leader, who was gunned down in Memphis, Tenn., at the age of 39. The day is meant to empower individuals and communities, and to create solutions to social problems. From community gardening to clean-ups to food service for the hungry, we know damn well there’s far more to be done than we could hope to accomplish in just one day. But this one day is a good time to start.
We mostly remember King for his bravery in the midcentury fight for civil rights. But his work reached far beyond issues of race — especially toward the end of his short life — to the greater economic inequalities of the American marketplace. “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism,” he said.
“Capitalism forgets that life is social,” King said in his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967. “I’m simply saying that, more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.
“You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’ These are questions that must be asked.”
It may well have been these questions — and his demand for answers — that ultimately got King shot and killed a few months later. “What I am saying today,” he concluded, “is that we must go from this convention and say, ‘America, you must be born again!’”
We remember King as a fierce but sweet believer in the principal of non-violence, a magical orator and empathic community organizer. He would probably be overjoyed to see our first black president; he would probably be equally horrified to see what capitalism has wrought on the planet and the poor, so often in one fell swoop.
Above all, though, King was a man of action. He imagined a more socially just world, and hell if he was going to wait for the government to help us get there. The most appropriate way to honor that kind of vision is to do something ourselves, since we are fortunate enough to still be here to do it.