Why MLK Day Should Be a Day of Atonement, Not a Day of Service

How organizations like PETA, Nike and McDonald's have removed the teeth from a true American radical.

As I’m typing this column, there’s fury on Twitter about a ridiculous tweet from animal-rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), that attempts to be topical by coalescing the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with its own agenda.

The absurdity and irony of this is clear (I hope). The first and most obvious infraction is that PETA makes the history of subjugation of African Americans in this country and “the plight of animals” one and the same. And the social media team that works on PETA’s behalf continues to participate in that same subjugation, through its comparison of human beings to animals. After the infraction was made and the offense taken, the tweet remains in plain sight on the organization’s social media feed, with no sign of self-awareness or remorse

What’s most revealing about this gaffe is the way that King’s “Dream” has been commoditized by modern history. That it is so reduced is further evident in the annual MLK Day commercial blitz from corporations like McDonald’s and Nike. For popular culture, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and “The Dream” are are now elements of capitalism, used to sell things. The beloved sound bites shorten the true glory of a man, his mission, his legacy and — despite all of his great works — his still unfulfilled promise.

Let us not forget as we quote him, as we click today’s Google Doodle, that he was a man — a young man — once considered a dangerous enemy of the state despite both practicing and encouraging a doctrine of non-violent resistance to advance the socioeconomic standing of both blacks in America and those of all races living in poverty. Now repackaged into a gentle giant of man who gave a great speech one day about togetherness (much in the same way that former South African president Nelson Mandela was), we have sanitized the ferocity of his words, the insistence of his cause and his earnestness of his language, the imperative and uncompromising nature of now.

“I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth,” he says in his third book, powerfully titled, Why We Can’t Wait, the first parts of which were written inside a Birmingham jail in 1963. “It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. “

So why do we evoke his memory so? By his own words, he was not a gradualist, nor afraid of conflict — in fact, he found it necessary. A casual glance at history (particularly the COINTELPRO agenda) demonstrates that he was not beloved by his peers. He was feared. Villianized. Considered a radical and a direct challenge to the status quo, which still exists in large part today.

King’s work has consistently been manipulated serve to the purposes of others; “The Dream” narrative makes people feel better about themselves; the holiday is framed as a day of service instead of national day of atonement because it alleviates the moral conscious that has so long been in disrepair. Injustices quickly deleted through a day’s work with the poor, or at inner city schools, with no sign of self-awareness or remorse.

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