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Column: Critically changing how we honor Martin Luther King Jr.

Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech. Photo courtesy of TNS.

On Monday, during a celebratory dinner with friends, I overheard a patron nearby wish their waiter, “Happy MLK Day!”

My entire table, a group of four Black women, took a pause — we had never heard anyone frame the holiday in that way. Typically that phrasing is reserved for Valentine’s Day or New Year's. We also noted the irony that the patron, who perhaps had the day off from work, was saying this to their server, who obviously did not.

The quick interaction served as some brief and diverting dinner chat, but also reminded me of the way Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become normalized as just a day off from work. We need to think critically about honoring King’s legacy and acknowledge his radical anti-capitalist politics, which would change the nature of the holiday itself.

Many of us across the University enjoyed an extended weekend on Jan. 17. For me, the day off meant not having to teach and enjoying the ability to sleep in a bit. With the snow left over from Sunday, it felt fitting to spend the day at home. This, of course, was not a universal experience.

Maintenance workers salted roads and shoveled snow to avoid the dangerous accumulation of it on the streets and sidewalks. The garbage valet service offered by my apartment was still up and running. The businesses around the Italian eatery we went to all had their lights on — including a grocery store, fast-food chain restaurants and a gym. 

MLK Day was designed to commemorate the legacy of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Since the 1980s, our country has taken the third Monday of every January to reflect on his life and politics. Banks close their doors. The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t deliver. The New York Stock Exchange ceases operations. Most schools from K-12 to college don’t hold classes. Libraries and city, state and federal offices are closed. 

This does not apply to private or small businesses who, in some cases, hope to catch business from those with a day free of obligation. As a federal holiday, it only explicitly applies to federal workers, a majority of whom are white. A 2019 survey by Bloomberg Law found that only 45 percent of American employers close for the holiday. Private employers can go about business as usual — and they do not have to pay overtime. 

This contrasts deeply with King’s politics that, in addition to emphasizing a union of the races, questioned a capitalistic system and a better distribution of wealth.

Much of the mainstream narrative around King focuses on his beliefs on desegregation and voting. With the passage of major legislation on those two social issues, it’s comforting to tell his story as one of a charismatic minister who spent his life fighting for his people — a fight he won and died for (emphasis on “died for” and not “was assassinated for”). 

Little is centered on his economic beliefs that condemned American capitalism that favored the wealthy and exploited the poor — a distinction also marked by race.

His iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, is remembered as one decrying racial injustice and promoting equality between Blacks and whites. A fuller context reveals the plea for the end of economic and employment inequality. The gathering at which it was given was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the latter four words trimmed in our mainstream recollection of the event. 

At this time, near the end of his life, King hoped to reveal the economic injustice of capitalism. In a letter to his wife, Coretta Scott King, he expressed the belief that capitalism had “outlived its usefulness” and “brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

We have yet to reckon with King’s full legacy until we consider the impact that capitalism continues to have on our personal lives, institutions like the University and the nation.

On Monday, President Joe Biden tweeted about protecting King’s achievements in challenging discrimination and advancing voting rights. I considered how paradoxical that sentiment is given that Election Day is not even a national holiday that would allow all Americans the time to exercise the right to vote.

Capitalism overrides even the democratic processes of our country. Many politicians and institutions send similar statements of homage to King, but maintain practices that undermine the economic aspects of his message. 

While recognizing how far we have come from the civil rights movement is important, the harsh reality is that we are still fighting for some of the same issues those in the movement wanted to address.

The racial unrest of 2020 showed the persistence of police brutality in this country. Further, the attack on the U.S. Capitol last year unmasked the ugly face of white supremacy and the lengths some Americans are willing to go to protect it.

The “Great Resignation” and bout of labor shortages around the country and across industries should be a sign that we need to take better care for our low-wage, frontline and minority workers who would rather quit than accept current working conditions.

The pandemic has exasperated existing socioeconomic disparities and hit Black households at disproportionate rates in terms of job loss, food insufficiency and financial insecurity. Long-established systemic health inequalities, and conditions like health care access and environmental quality in neighborhoods that are social determinants of health, inordinately burden minority racial and ethnic groups with COVID-19 deaths. 

Unsurprisingly, the discrimination and inequality among the races has left some more vulnerable than others to insecurity, exploitation and death. 

We have a lot more to work on before we can congratulate ourselves for continuing King’s legacy. We should rather ask how much actual progress has been made to sustain the achievements he helped make regarding racial equality and voting rights and pledge to continue his fight for economic equality that ended when his life was violently taken. 

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Although those of us who have it appreciate the time off, I hope that we can take more actionable steps to implement King’s vision for our society. One that prioritizes rest over productivity. That pays a living wage or better yet, implements a universal income. Or that prioritizes the mental and physical health of its citizens over profit.

These issues can’t be addressed in one day, but rather than flowery gestures of commemoration, we should work to correct the systems of race and class injustice that King and the movement fought against.

@_zarialyssa |