Martin Luther King Day is a curious holiday in the United States. We give Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a day, yet ignore Dr. King the other 364 days of the year. What if we celebrated Christmas the same way that we celebrate Martin Luther King Day?
Only a fool would unwrap their gifts, enjoy them for one short day, then box them up until next Christmas. But that is how we celebrate Martin Luther King Day.
We need Dr. King each and every day of the year. One day of MLK is insufficient, to say the least.
King is perhaps the greatest leader that our country has ever produced. Years ago, while I was studying at WSSU, I heard professor Larry Little say, “White folks ask-when will you produce another Dr. King? But I ask them, when will you produce your first Dr. King?”
Yet when we honor Dr. King must not deify him or ignore the greater Black radical tradition. King stood on the shoulders of Du Bois, Douglass, and countless others who came before him. The Black radical tradition did not end with King. King is a bridge to Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin, Angela Davis and other contemporary writers.
The greatness of King is measured by the movement that he led and the volume of work he produced; countless sermons, speeches, and books. Too often political leaders cherry pick King’s work and cite only King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” or his “Message From A Birmingham Jail.”
But, King didn’t merely call for an end to Jim Crow segregation, he also called for the abolition of poverty. King’s last public act was leading a march through Memphis on the behalf of striking sanitation workers. King was killed a few weeks before he was to lead a national Poor People’s Campaign.
In King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King advocated for something truly radical, a universal basic income:
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective-the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
We need the full Martin, not the sanitized Martin Luther King, Jr. that our politicians prefer. Martin’s message was much broader than simply joining hands and reciting spirituals together. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. opposed “the three evils of militarism, poverty, and racism.”
In the over 50 years since King’s death, militarism in the United States is stronger than ever. The U.S. has countless bases around the globe and is engaged directly or indirectly in military conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
Today, poverty is often accepted and goes unchallenged. Historical roots of poverty are left unexamined. Few even ask, who profits from poverty? Why is poverty allowed to flow from one generation to another?
Overt racism isn’t tolerated today, but systemic racism is alive and well. Progress has been made. It’s a good thing that President Trump’s recent “shit hole” comments were condemned both around the country and around the globe. But if we really want to honor King’s legacy, we must work to fight poverty.
Winston-Salem has been formally celebrating Martin Luther King Day since 1986. But the Martin Luther King, Jr. that is celebrated today in Winston is the is the King that helped desegregate buses and register voters in 1956, not the fierce critic of war and inequality that King became in the years before his death in 1968.
While Winston was an early adopter of the Martin Luther King Day holiday, it continues to ignore his vision for fighting poverty. Entrenched poverty in Black neighborhoods is a legacy of slavery and segregation. We cannot fight racism if we ignore poverty.
Winston fights poverty in a way that King once described as “piecemeal and pigmy.” Various failed projects in East Winston speak to the many failures of Mayor Joines and Mayor Pro Tempore, Vivian Burke; the Liberty Street Market, Premier Park, the Lake Park housing development, Taste of the Triad (formerly Malone’s), the Amer Center and the forthcoming Zesto restaurant.
Winston-Salem, Forsyth County is home to some of the most concentrated poverty in the entire country. Children born poor in Forsyth County have a very low likelihood of advancing out of poverty.
Yet our political leaders (many of whom are Black Democrats) are devoted to market solutions to poverty, not Martin’s solutions to poverty. Given, the City of Winston-Salem is in a precarious position when it comes to fighting poverty. Its actions are no substitute for state and federal programs.
Republican-controlled North Carolina is hostile and indifferent to the plight of the poor. The same can be said of the federal government. Congress stopped wagging the War on Poverty decades ago.
In its place, Nixon instituted the War on Drugs. Instead of lifting people (specifically, African-Americans) out of poverty, the War on Drugs has had the opposite effect. Mass Incarceration has confiscated wealth from inner-city communities that desperately need investment.
But the City of Winston-Salem could do more to fight poverty. It could fund worker co-operatives and do more to provide quality affordable housing in Winston.
Sadly, the very leaders today that are praising King in Winston-Salem are obsessed with market-based solutions the other 364 days of the year. If they cared about King they would start to focus on programs that could uplift the entire community-even if only incrementally, not just members of the Black Bourgeoisie.