Monday, January 28, 2008

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and volunteering

Last Friday, The Dallas Morning News published a piece I originally intended to post here in its Op-Ed section.

Taking the advice of several friends, I'll post it here:

King’s True Legacy: Justice not Volunteering

Several years ago lots of people got the idea that the best way to celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday was to organize a special day of community service.

You've likely heard it: "Not a day off, but a day on!" The idea being that the best way to honor Dr. King's memory and legacy would be discovered in organized volunteer efforts to extend compassion and aid to the less fortunate among us.

Here at Central Dallas Ministries we manage a rather large AmeriCorps program, so we received word from the Corporation for National Service that directed programs like ours all across the nation to orchestrate volunteer projects. Certainly nothing wrong with that.

I picked up on the same sentiment this week at the website of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Here's part of the post:

"President Bush marked the Martin Luther King Jr. King holiday by volunteering and calling on Americans to honor King’s legacy by showing compassion on the holiday and throughout the year.

"The President and First Lady Laura Bush joined dozens of volunteers at the Martin Luther King Jr. library as they repaired and shelved books and taught lessons about King’s life to children. More than a half million Americans are serving in 5,000 King Day of Service projects across the country.”

Here in Dallas, we enjoyed the commentary of popular Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow, who bemoaned the lack of organized community volunteer opportunities on this special day of national service ("Ready to go, nowhere to serve," January 20, 2008).

Don't get me wrong.

I'm all for seeing folks volunteer.

I believe in the value of community service.

Nothing beats genuine compassion and concern for others, especially those who are down and out, ill, mistreated, marginalized and neglected.

But, in my opinion, the continuing and growing effort to link the memory of Dr. King to a day of volunteering diminishes the real significance of his life, to say nothing of how badly it misses the mark in understanding his personal mission.

Dr. King didn't call folks to volunteer to help the poor. He wanted to know why so many people were poor in a nation of such opulence and wealth.

So far as I know, Dr. King never organized a food pantry or invited the rich to serve in soup kitchens. He asked hard questions about the meaning of hunger and homelessness to our collective, national soul.

He didn't call for mentors and volunteer projects in our public schools. No, Dr. King asked penetrating questions about the quality of education for all of our children.

Dr. King didn't just invite people to visit the hospitals where soldiers were returning home with severe injuries and lifelong disabilities caused by a terrible conflict in Southeast Asia. He asked why the war needed to continue at all.

He didn't wonder why more health care professionals weren't volunteering in indigent clinics. He challenged the nation to adopt a just universal health care policies to insure that every American received adequate and routine treatment.

The kinds of volunteer opportunities that Dr. King invited people to take part in often landed them in jail, not on the front page of the society section!

He asked people to march, to register to vote, to sit in, to resist and to confront systemic injustice and unfair laws. He asked people to lay down their very lives for the sorts of changes that made the American system better for everyone. His program didn't seek to simply meet needs. His vision called for the elimination of need.

Certainly, I see and often champion the value of community service. However, to redefine Dr. King's life and legacy in those terms limits his importance and drains his message of its power. And, frankly, such an emphasis lets us all off the hook when it comes to the fundamental and sweeping public policy changes still needing our attention and the full expression of our courage as a people.




chris said...

As long as we are talking about justice, what about the problem of voter fraud? When given a chance to prevent voter fraud Democrats resist voter I.D. because they know that they benefit from fraud and not Republicans. The "poor people can't afford voter I.D." is just a smokescreen because the Democrats can't afford any program that prevents voter fraud. When you have illegal immigrants, felons, dead people, all voting for you and keeping you in office the last thing you want to do is jepordize that. I wonder if Dr. King would march against voter fraud?

Anonymous said...

chris, just when I thought you couldn't sound or be more absurd, you bring up voter fraud as a problem for the Democrats. Are you kidding me? Let's see. Where were you during the election of 2000? Remember Florida? Did you read anything about Ohio in 2004?

chris, ever hear of the "poll tax" as a barrier to voting for marginalized minorities? What planet are you on?

Give me a break. Larry has more patience than anyone I know for allowing your words to remain up.

chris said...

What planet are you on, anonymous? Voter I.D. is very much in the news. One needs I.D. to cash a check but most Dems are against I.D. to vote. How easy it would be for illegals to vote if they didn't need I.D. That's why most Dems are against cracking down on illegals, because they need their vote.

Anonymous said...


Your leaps of "logic" are amazing. Larry's post is about MLK, what should be the scandal of poverty in the wealthiest country on Earth, and honoring King's legacy by seeking to change that paradigm. How did you get to voter fraud? In any event, voter fraud has repeatedly been shown to be a non-issue in virtually all elections - its actual incidence is just miniscule.

Thanks for the post and reminder, Larry. (Some of us actually ready it.)

c hand said...

An Obama nomination could go a long way toward the "judge a man by the content of his character not the color of his skin" dream. But it looks like the Clintons will play the race card and color him as "just a black candidate"

Anonymous said...

c hand - i don't read Larry's blog to read political comments like you just threw out about Obama. Take that nonsense to the CNN blog where people apparently just like you spend most of their day writing comments just like the one you made. BTW, what time does your Obama for President meeting start tonight? So if Obama loses, are we just a bunch of racist... or could there be another reason why he lost the election. Stop playing the race card.

chris said...

anon. 12:39

Voter fraud is miniscule when the Dems win, if they lose it is HUGH.

chris said...

That would be HUGE.

Karen Shafer said...

The original post is absolutely right on. Hooray for you, Larry.

c hand said...

Larrys original post was about MLK who had a dream about a country where a man would be "judged content of his character not the color of his skin" At this time in history the dominant figure in the democrat party (Bill Clinton) is unwilling to have an election based on character but instead has repeatedly injected race where it doesn't belong. I think that is a sad obsticle to seeing MLKs dream realized.

Joe said...

Like Larry James said MLK was about the big picture. It is not about being a Democrat or Republican it is about having fair and honest elections. That is what has made this country the greatest country in the world. We should have election day voter registration where anyone that wants to vote can register and vote the day of election. This would allow everyone to vote and the job of the election workers could be spent helping people to cast their votes for the people of their choice. Then the election workers would not have to be election police. Dr. Kings dream was that all people who wanted to could vote. God forgives us why can't we forgive ex-offenders and make sure that they are able to vote. We put so many road blocks up for the poor that they choose not to vote. We have one of lowest voter turnout in the developed world. We should also make sure that all of the electronic voting machines across the country are able to print a paper receipt like a grocery receipt that people can verify that their vote was cast the way they wanted before putting it in a can and providing the voters and election workers a paper trail. This would let people know that there was a paper trail and that their votes were counted correctly. Why is it that the Republican County Commissioners in Dallas refuse to do this. The country is fixing to buy new voting equipment and now is the time to let your county commissioners that we need a paper trail to be fair to everyone and assure everyone that their vote counted. I say this as a person who has worked every election for the last 37 years.

Karen Shafer said...

Joe is absolutely right. A paper trail is the only way to insure fair and honest elections. When people talk about voter fraud, they should be very aware of how vulnerable the electronic machines are to tampering and should fight for a paper trail as hard as they do for voter I.D.'s.