Martin Luther King Day in Memphis — and the nation — has become a sham.

There’s nothing wrong with the marches. The events hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel are fine. What has become superficial is the spirit and purpose of the day of service. Exhibit A: How hypocritical is it that Vice President Pence comes to town this weekend to honor the champion of nonviolence after spending the last several weeks bragging about bombs being dropped over Iran.

King Day became a federal holiday in 1983. Eleven years later, in 1994, Congress designated the day as “a national day of service” and assigned the Corporation of National and Community Service with the task of leading the effort.

In 2020, the day of service has become a sham. It has been one for several years now.

In 2020, the day of service has become a sham. It has been one for several years now.

The modern King Day is used as a day where people evoke King’s name who do not share his nature. People who work against the initiatives King fought for, chastise citizens — subversively blaming victims for the social conditions — and challenge them to engage in charitable acts instead of advocating for justice.

I recently listened to an interview King gave to NBC News in 1967. He confessed that the “dream” he shared at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had “at many points turned into a nightmare.” King is reported saying he felt guilty of “integrating people into a burning house.

We don’t ever hear that quote from King in mid-January (or ever, really).

King would go on to suggest his “optimism was a bit superficial and must be tempered with a solid realism.”

Here’s the real: Memphis is unwilling to highlight the critical claims King made regarding social change. Hardly any of our social, political or religious leaders talk about our need for radical transformation. Those who do are demonized and vilified. We’re prodded to pick up more trash, pray for those in poverty and take a child to the Grizzlies’ game.

Does anyone care that while we’re bragging about billion-dollar projects in Downtown, Midtown and Harbor Town, poverty is increasing in Boxtown, South Memphis and North Memphis? We have money for bridge lights, banquets and banners. But we can’t seem to find money for black lives.

MLK Day makes me think about what we’re doing pragmatically for everyday people.

MLK Day makes me think about what we’re doing pragmatically for everyday people, people like one of my new parishioners that I met while he was in jail at 201 Poplar facing an armed robbery charge. He was about 25 at the time, just beyond the scope of those we now refer to as “opportunity youth.” In other words, he was just old enough to be left behind by the current thrust of “momentum” some of us love talking about.

This young man’s life won’t be transformed through 100 more hours of community service or a baptism into volunteerism. His quality of life won’t improve through pious prayers disconnected from progressive public policy. What he needs is a restructuring of our social condition. He needs access to a livable wage job. He needs healthcare. He needs a community that will spend more on his education than we spent on his incarceration.

Community service only requires a sacrifice of our time. And when you are white, rich or privileged, time is usually on your side. Time is not on his side. This young man is trying to reconfigure his life to make up for the time he’s lost.

Black folks in Memphis are working against the clock. We need people willing to sacrifice their treasure — money made on the backs of black labor — more than we need tutors to help kids in schools we refuse to support with city tax dollars.

Calls for service in an inequitable environment are concoctions of deception and disrespectful to King’s transcendent legacy.

Service is cosmetic. Equity is structural.

Service is cosmetic. Equity is structural.

What if King Day became the day where elected officials, clergy and community advocates presented progressive policy proposals to the public in King’s honor? Sign me up for that program.

When King began to advocate for a redistribution of wealth and the revolution of values, he was targeted more aggressively than ever and killed — in Memphis.

But maybe that’s the plan, after all. Keep us all chasing a dream, serving and waiting on justice, until we die.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and public policy. Support independent journalism by makinga tax-deductible donationtoday. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Community Change. Sign up for our newsletter.

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