Dr King: From Charity to Justice

Far from being a simple do-gooder, Martin was a radical organizer who was willing to put his life on the line to confront the structural injustices of poverty, racism, and militarism. Photo: gandhiking.ning.com

In the late ‘90s, Apple Computer, Inc. launched an advertising campaign called “Think Different” which used the image and likeness of inspirational leaders in order to sell their product. One of those leaders was Martin Luther King, Jr. The message was clear: the advertisers were trying to link the great social revolutionary to their brand. I remember then thinking about how domesticated the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. had become. This was a man who, at the time of his death, was excoriated not just by conservatives, but by the liberals of his time (including fellow Civil Rights leaders) for being too strident a critic of what he termed the “triple evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” Since he so often called out the capitalist system, it is absurd to think that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have lent his likeness to a corporate advertising campaign.

This brings us to the “Day of Service” campaign associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. For sure, there is great value in teaching citizens the value of service.  However, King was a radical organizer. He was less interested in charity than he was in justice. He wanted to correct the structural injustices of society, not provide a band-aid for them. He organized systematically against systems of power. It is important to remember that the last campaign he worked on was called the “Poor People’s Campaign” which was designed to unionize those at lowest strata of the US. In the great class war that has always been raging throughout human history, King was decidedly on the side of workers.

As we think about how to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, it is important for us to remember that he was considered a dangerous man at the time. Far from the “cuddly bear” image that has been promulgated by those in power, King was a man who deeply terrified the elites because of his capacity to organize large numbers of disenfranchised people, remind them of their inherent worth as human beings, and demand the basic rights we are all owed: a fair wage, health care, and a meaningful voice in the democratic debate. It was his ability to think beyond individual charity towards a justice rooted in love that made him one of the greatest citizens this country has produced. May we be worthy of the legacy he left us.

– Aly Wane