The Philly MLK Day Luncheon That Would Have Dr. King Rolling in His Grave

The annual MLK Day Awards and Benefit Luncheon is a pricey, elitist affair that this year is honoring a local official facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

martin luther king jr

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing a crowd in Philadelphia during the fight to integrate Girard College in 1965. Photo: Associated Press

“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said at an address he gave at the National Conference for New Politics in 1967. As much as Dr. King spoke out against racial injustice, he also had an unshakable socialist consciousness that strove the counter the ills of capitalism.

But next Monday, as many continue to whitewash the civil rights icon’s legacy on MLK Day, an annual gathering in the city to honor Dr. King will also disregard a major facet of his work.

The Annual Awards and Benefit Luncheon, hosted by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King, Jr. Association for Nonviolence, Inc., has become the most prominent MLK event in Philadelphia. Politicians, CEOs, executive directors, and other notables will mingle for hours to celebrate one another as a fundraiser for the nonprofit.

Billed as a “highly visible affair,” the event has previously drawn more than 2,000 attendees and is considered “the largest luncheon in honor of Dr. King in the country.” Prior to the luncheon, there is a “special invitation only” ringing of the Liberty Bell that officially inaugurates MLK Day in Philly. An individual ticket to this affair runs from $90 to $300, and the highest corporate sponsorship package costs $10,000.

One of this year’s three “Drum Major” honorees at the event is Philadelphia sheriff Jewell Williams, who is facing federal lawsuits filed by two former Sheriff’s Office employees alleging that he sexually harassed them on the job. (Williams has repeatedly denied the claims.) In 2012, the Democratic Caucus of the state House of Representatives paid a former legislative aide $30,000 as a settlement after she accused Williams of misconduct while he was a state representative.

Dr. King would be rolling in his grave right now if he knew that a nonprofit bearing his name was charging a boatload of money to honor an elected official who has been accused multiple times of sexual harassment. If there is anything we know about MLK, we know that he was a man who spoke of ethics, decency, and humanity. Nothing about this luncheon’s setup exemplifies Dr. King’s radical commitment to racial equality, social justice, and compassion. Rather than looking forward to the event, I’m left concerned about the alleged victims who have accused Williams and frustrated that working-class people can’t afford to attend this “highly visible” event.

Just in case people have forgotten, Dr. King’s history in Philadelphia was focused on the working class and the city’s ongoing racial inequity. In 1967, he brought his “Freedom Tour” to Philly, where he delivered a version of his powerful “Other America” speech that amplified the voices of impoverished communities and how we must all “mobilize the forces of our country to have an all-out war against poverty.” In a city where the majority of its population is of color and disproportionately faces deep poverty, his words still ring true for a new generation.

Prioritizing the city’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens on MLK Day is a tone-deaf way of honoring the man. In 1965, Dr. King spoke at the Golden Slipper Square Club in Philly so he could raise enough money to fight for Black voting registration in the deep South. Dr. King didn’t partake in such affairs simply for the vanity of being “highly visible,” but for the humility it took to finance the Civil Rights movement. I can’t imagine him cosigning a plated luncheon that’s not within the financial means of the people he fought for. While the rest of us will be taking off work to commit to a service project, the city’s elite will be stuffing their faces while being complicit enough to honor a man accused of sexual harassment.

I doubt this was the kind of “dream” Dr. King had in mind.

To be clear, this isn’t a shot against nonprofit fundraisers in general, but against an event that aligns Dr. King’s name with the reinforcement of unequal political power structures and relies upon inequitable corporate tiers of wealth — one that is, essentially, a misappropriation of his legacy for self-gain.

I recommend that the Philadelphia Martin Luther King, Jr. Association for Nonviolence, Inc. reframe its elitist MLK Day luncheon to spotlight the community at large instead. It would be impressive for the organization to immediately rescind Sheriff Williams’s honor, given that I doubt he’s truly the kind of “Drum Major” Dr. King spoke highly of.

In 1967, Dr. King warned us that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

This MLK Day, let’s address his true message, even if it has to start with a luncheon.