How to Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (if you’re white)

I want to write about the MLK holiday. There are several thoughts angling into my brain on this one. It’s probably best if I just lay them all out there at once.

  • I deeply admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all that he stood for.
    • I know that he was a freedom fighter, a philosopher, a preacher, a non-violent resister of oppression.
    • I’ve studied with Dr. Vincent Harding and have a better-than-most-white-people understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.
    • My undergrad Ethics thesis was on the differences between MLK and Malcolm X…delivered to an almost all-white college.
  • I understand and affirm the basic premise of white supremacy and my complicity in it.
  • I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to cross and bridge the racial divide.
    • I pastored a Black congregation and was affirmed in my ministry to them. They “ordained” me before my denomination got around to it.
    • I then pastored a congregation founded, in part, by the KKK and made deliberate effort to speak  to divisive racial matters: preaching specifically on the Trayvon Martin killing and speaking openly of my admiration for Dr. King.
  • I’m deeply troubled by my own localized experiences of white supremacy.
    • I live in a town with a shrine to the Confederacy.
    • I live in a town with almost NO black people and am deeply concerned that my small children will think that’s normal.
  • I’m bothered by one element of the Black Lives Matter movement which focuses almost singularly on the exclusive experiences of black people.
    • Certain claims, like “white poverty is not black poverty” seem almost dismissive of the notion that white people can suffer (it’s hard for an Appalachian to take this seriously).
    • The policing of free speech on campuses bothers me, but I admit that I’m not sure how wide-spread of a problem this is.
    • This is almost always ineffective in advancing black causes as it too easily places white people on the defensive, even white people who want to be on the right side of justice.
      • I am NOT talking about exposing discrimination. Obviously, this needs to be exposed.
      • Finding commonalities has historically been very effective in moving the conscience of white people and advancing the causes of people of color (i.e. “I am a Man” and voting rights were two effective measures where a commonality was utilized to advance the causes of black people).
    • It reminds me of a t-shirt from high school: “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.”
      • That sentiment just builds unnecessary walls and is illogical if equality is your goal.
    • Even with this reservation, I can affirm that Black Lives Matter is the most important and effective movement for freedom and equality in the nation.

Can I, as a white person, actually celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I don’t think that MLK would mind people cleaning up the local park on his birthday. He did fight for black freedom as a father who just wanted to take his kids to the park. But clearly the most important way to honor his legacy is to continue his work.

It is probably true that I’ll never fully understand the black experience. White supremacy is everywhere. But Dr. King gave us another on-ramp to advancing equality: the thankless, necessary work of poverty alleviation.

Studying with Dr. Harding, I learned at the feet of one who marched with, and went to jail for, Dr. King. Dr. Harding also drafted speeches for Dr. King. Dr. Harding drafted the speech that eventually became Dr. King’s address at Riverside Church in New York during which Dr. King came out against the war in Vietnam (“Beyond Vietnam“). It was a monumental shift for the movement. For Dr. King, winning voting rights and taking down segregation were merely necessary steps on the road to full freedom and equality for all of humanity. A year later to the day, Dr. King would be assassinated. Dr. Harding shared with our class that for many years he bore a great deal of guilt over that matter. While many felt the assassination was racially motivated, Dr. Harding was convinced it was as much about the war as anything else. That Riverside Church speech had been so good as to receive a sharp rebuttal from President Johnson, who had previously been receptive to the work of Dr. King and the movement. Now Dr. King was seeing the war divide America along economic lines, while racial lines were already killing too many.

poor_peoples_campaign_flyer_fullAdd to that the very reason MLK was in Memphis to begin with. City garbage workers had begun organizing and protesting for safer working conditions and better wages following several job-related deaths and failed attempts to organize effectively. Dr. Harding shared that many in Dr. King’s inner circle were reluctant to go back to the front lines of demonstrating, after having won the vote. Dr. King was clear that returning the plight of the struggling underclass the next front of the movement. He had already begun organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King saw the Poor People’s Campaign as a “a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity” (speech to SCLC, 15 March 1968). Just as Dr. King found white allies to be very important to his early work, his vision of the Poor People’s Campaign was one that included poor people of all backgrounds. And I’ve known poor people.

Poor Lives Matter

I can never inhabit the space of oppression that black America as inhabited. But I also do not have to just lay down in the bed of white supremacy. I can overcome this by raising my consciousness as well as my effort in winning the dignity of all people. I can help black people by helping poor people. I can affirm the Black Lives Matter by joining in the struggle to alleviate the suffering of poverty. As black people are disproportionately poor, you cannot effectively fight poverty without standing up for the dignified treatment of people of color.

To celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., take on the causes of the poor around you. Where I live, it is the vilification of the homeless and the lack of affordable housing that divides people economically. It is the vulturous prospecting of housing which kicks the vulnerable to the curb as a means of making a profit. Where I grew up, it is the crushing effects of the private sector pulling out, leaving behind rampant drug abuse and lots of hopelessness. In your town, there is poverty…not just the presence of poor people, but systems and schemes that make the making of poor people a profitable business. Is your county considering a prison as a way of “creating jobs” and balancing budgets? Is your town run b y a single entity who capitalizes on being the ONE big player? Is the biggest employer underpaying their employees so much that they have to go on public assistance?

The legacy of Dr. King is one of justice. Service is great, but it is not the same as justice. Justice makes some people mad in the process of freeing others. Dr. King was a justice keeper. And I still want to be like him. Black Lives Matter is a movement of justice. I’m still listening to them, even when I don’t understand. Perhaps the best thing I can do this MLK holiday is fire up that last speech in Memphis and learn about the poor in my town and schedule my first step in being part of the solution.

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