As a person who lived during the time of Martin Luther King Jr., I’m struck that he was assassinated a half-century ago. I’m also struck that the legacy of this extraordinarily controversial man, this strikingly radical Christian – during his life, he was accused of communist sympathies, harassed by the FBI, hated by much of America – has gently and rightly morphed into a spirit that affirms equality, acceptance and service.
No other American’s birth and life is observed the way we observe King’s. Thomas Jefferson Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are smushed together on Presidents’ Day. (Transformational presidents like JFK, LBJ and FDR must be shoehorned into that holiday as well.)
The enormous difference between this holiday and all others on the calendar: The legislation creating the MLK Day of Service mandated it be led and promoted by the Corporation for National Community Service, a little-known federal agency with a billion-dollar budget. Hence, the shelving of King’s dogged challenges to power and the subsequent elevation of general calls to love, serve and aspire. The King legacy has been shaped by the federal government as much as any other entity.
In the years since Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, the moral authority of his message has been buoyed by a political environment that supported civil rights, voting rights and religious freedom. The implicit message of nonviolence and economic justice existed as themes most politicians – Democratic and Republican – could support.
Eight years ago, with the election of President Barack Obama, the bipartisan consensus began to collapse. Racially charged images of the first Black president were paraded through town squares and opportunistic politicians eagerly rode the wave of anger. With the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Voter ID laws and high-level calls for a ban on Muslims and Latinos, social and civic distress has become common.
Long story short, our next president is America’s No. 1 birther, disbeliever in religious freedom and overt instigator of mob violence. Gays, immigrants and minorities of color are fearful. Swastikas are being scrawled in more and more public and private spaces. The new president's chief strategist formerly ran a website that was remarkably accommodating to white supremacists and neo-Nazis. We will have a Secretary of Labor who would reverse America’s 75-year-old embrace of a minimum wage.
With the Presidency, the courts and Congress arrayed against education, equality and workers, many Americans desperately seek a way forward that nurtures hope and mitigates impending setbacks in human progress.
The Tea Party offers a recent example of how to successfully turn a political tide. Their abrasive activism involved racially provocative signs, bullying and name-calling, but their efforts successfully resulted in a federal government that is far more sympathetic to their agenda than to any other voting bloc in the nation.
King was a courageous and brilliant strategist who would probably have a theory on how to proceed in these regressive times, but that strikingly radical Christian is no longer on display. Rather, we have a government-sponsored, poetic and benign version of the man who shook this nation.
During ordinary times, it is adequate and good to focus King Day celebrants on how to volunteer, donate and give back. But our national commitment to comity has been extinguished; far more is now required. With our new, inhospitable realities, good Americans focusing solely on community service may seem quaint and insular.
The challenge for community leaders who hold high the shining example of MLK is to find and present the parts of his legacy that are pertinent and animating. Civil rights, voting rights, fair housing, equal employment opportunity – King set the stage for all of it. To preserve the relevance of this amazing federal holiday, leaders must dig deeper or forever surrender King to the homogenizers of history.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director under Mayors Ed Rendell and John Street and former chief of staff to the late Council President Joseph E. Coleman.