COMMENTARY: ‘Day of Service’ a superficial sham of a way to celebrate MLK Day

Memphis needs justice much more than service, writes Rev. Earle J. Fisher


by Dr. Earle J. Fisher, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Martin Luther King Day in Memphis (and the nation) has become a sham.

Rev. Earle J. Fisher

There’s nothing wrong with the marches.

The events hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum are fine.

What has become superficial is the spirit and purpose of the “day of service.”

Dr. King Day became a federal holiday in 1983.  Eleven years later, in 1994, Congress designated the day as “a national day of service” and assigned the Corporation of National and Community Service with the task of leading the effort.

In 2020, the “day of service” has become a sham. It has been a sham for several years now.

The modern MLK Day is used as a day where people evoke Dr. King’s name who do not share Dr. King’s nature. People who work against the initiatives King fought for, chastise citizens – subversively blaming victims for the social conditions – and challenge them to engage in charitable acts instead of advocating for justice.

I recently listened to an interview Dr. King gave to NBC News in 1967. He confessed that the “dream” he shared at the March on Washington in 1963 had “at many points turned into a nightmare.” Dr. King felt he was guilty of (as James Baldwin coined it), “integrating (my) people into a burning house.”

We don’t ever hear that quote from Dr. King in mid-January (or ever, really).

Dr. King would go on to suggest that his “optimism was a bit superficial and must be tempered with a solid realism.”

Here’s the real – Memphis is unwilling to highlight the critical claims King made regarding social change. Hardly any of our social, political or religious leaders talk about our need for radical transformation (and those that do are demonized and vilified). We’re prodded to pick up more trash, pray for those in poverty and take a child to the Grizzlies’ game.

Does anyone care that while we’re bragging about billion-dollar projects in downtown, Midtown and Harbor Town, poverty is increasing in Boxtown, South Memphis and North Memphis? We have money for bridge lights, banquets and banners. But we can’t seem to find money for black lives.

MLK Day makes me think about what we’re doing pragmatically for everyday people; people like one of my new parishoners (let’s call him) Greg. I met Greg while he was in jail at 201 Poplar facing an armed robbery charge.  He was about 25 years old at the time. He was just beyond the scope of those we now refer to as “opportunity youth.”

In other words, he was just old enough to be left behind by the current thrust of “momentum” we have in the city.

Greg’s life won’t be transformed through 100 more hours of community service or a baptism into volunteerism. His quality of life won’t improve through pious prayers that are disconnected from progressive public policy. What Greg needs is a restructuring of the social conditions. He needs access to a livable wage job. He needs healthcare. He needs a community that will spend more on his education than we spent on his incarceration.

Community service only requires a sacrifice of our time. And when you are white, rich or privileged time is usually on your side. Time is not on Greg’s side. In fact, Greg is trying to reconfigure his life to make up for time he’s lost.

Black folks in Memphis are working against the clock. We need people willing to sacrifice their treasure – money made on the backs of black labor – more than we need tutors to help kids in schools we refuse to support with city tax dollars.

Calls for service in an inequitable environment are concoctions of deception and disrespectful to Dr. King’s transcendent legacy.

Service is cosmetic. Equity is structural.

What if MLK Day became the day where elected officials, clergy and community advocates presented progressive policy proposals to the public in Dr. King’s honor? Sign me up for that program.

When King began to advocate for a redistribution of wealth and the revolution of values, he was targeted (more aggressively) and killed…in Memphis.

But maybe that’s the plan after all.  Keep us all chasing a dream…serving…waiting on justice…until we die.

(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D. is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Whitehaven, Founder of #UPTheVote901 and the Henry Logan Starks Fellow at Memphis Theological Seminary.)