On Monday, newspapers and local TV news stations will all dutifully cover what is, indeed, a singular accomplishment. To mark Martin Luther King Day, some 140,000 Philadelphians will turn out to participate in more than 1,800 community service projects throughout the region.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in Philadelphia is one of the largest of its kind in the country. Here’s how you can join in.
I’m old enough to remember the birth of the MLK Day of Service, after it was established in the mid-’90s by legislation co-authored by our then-U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, both of whom stood alongside King during the civil rights movement.
I remember the offense some African-American leaders took when it was announced that the project would be led by a Wofford protege, who was, and remains, white and Jewish. I remember the halting first steps: the 1,000 volunteers in year one, gradually growing thereafter.
The criticism of Todd Bernstein, who remains the head of the project, is even louder now than it was 25 years ago, encapsulated this weekend by comments from lawyer/activist Michael Coard, cofounder of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, who urged African Americans not to participate in the day. “I mean no disrespect to any white person, but we have to stop white people from appropriating Dr. King and get them to start appreciating Dr. King,” Coard told The Inquirer’s Valerie Russ. “You don’t appreciate this radical, you don’t appreciate this revolutionary, you don’t appreciate this antiwar activist, this poor people’s leader, by forcing people to work, by forcing people to engage in service.”
The latter part of Coard’s critique is right on: The mainstream media has sanitized and caricatured King through the decades, effectively erasing the radicalism of his last years prompted by his moral outrage over the Vietnam War. But that narrative has been shaped by both white and black storytellers.
To lambaste Bernstein because of the color of his skin is to actually depart from King, who, even in his 1968 radical reinvention, never rejected his “content of their character” point of view. To the end, King embraced white allies like his longtime friend and advisor Stanley Levison in the struggle for justice, and his Poor People’s Campaign focused on black and white victims of economic violence.