Cohen: Reflections on MLK Day

February 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm Leave a comment

By Rick Cohen

It has been more than a week since the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.  In the breakfasts, dinners, and ceremonies are over that led to up to the holiday, there were encomiums about the meaning of Rev. King’s message and community projects for volunteers to join and demonstrate their commitment to helping their neighbors.  A day after the event, the press reported on the good deeds done—and then it was over.

Martin Luther King Jr. Photo from

The holiday was more than a week ago. For most Americans, it was a day off from school or work, perhaps graced by devoting some time to “day of service” projects in Rev. King’s name, but something feels missing, something less than the meaning of Rev King’s work, especially for those of us who, as products of Rev. King’s era, know that the nonprofit sector we all work in is, in large measure, a product of the civil rights movement.  Turning the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the nation’s preeminent civil rights leader of the 1950s and 1960s, into a one-and-gone holiday on the calendar every January simply doesn’t feel right.

For those of us who remember the “I have a dream” speech from hearing Rev. King as he said the words, for those of us who have vivid memories of Rev. King leading the marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge facing police dogs and tear gas, for those of us who experienced the aftermath of Rev. King’s assassination, something is truly missing in the “day of service” memorials.

Sadiyah Archibald, 10, works on a mural to decorate Curley School in Jamaica Plain yesterday as part of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Photo from

No one can question the sincerity and commitment of the volunteers showing up for the “day of service” events that were held on January 17th.  In Boston, for example, Boston Cares got 600 volunteers to create murals for the Curley School, fleece scarves and dental hygiene kits, City Year convened 82 middle schoolers to discuss how they might improve their communities, and YouthBuild Boston and the Red Sox Foundation gathered 6th graders to redecorate Roxbury’s Early Care and Education Center.  In Iowa City, 150 volunteers gathered at an Episcopal church to fill toiletry bags, knit scarves and hats, bake muffins and granola bars, and sew quilts for residents at a homeless facility.  The Philadelphia metropolitan area counted 75,000 volunteers participating in 1,200 service projects on Monday, ranging from the repair and donation of 100 used computers to public housing residents to distributing snack bags to critically ill children at Ronald McDonald House.

Spending your holiday off in a community service project is a ton better than the self-indulgence and historical amnesia that accompanies most national holidays.  But does King’s legacy be commemorated by a national focus on a day of service?

King’s leadership was more than service.  It was organizing, advocacy, protest, calling the social conditions—and international policies—of the U.S. unacceptable, intolerable, and asking people to let their voices be heard in state capitols and the Congress.  None of us should dismiss day-of-service projects by a long shot.  But the U.S. is hardly short of volunteers, we are a nation of volunteers—63.4 million Americans volunteered between September 2008 and September 2009.  More than demonstrations of individual volunteer care and concern, something about Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy connects to current issues requiring more than volunteer days, but bigger policy changes.’s Isaiah Poole points out a striking historical anomaly.  When the Rev. Martin Luther King led the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, aiming at the terrible employment conditions facing African-Americans, the national unemployment rate was below 4 percent and for African-Americans a little less than 7 percent.  Now, the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics release puts the national unemployment rate at 9.4 percent and the African-American unemployment level at 15.8 percent.  A press release from the Children’s Defense Fund cites statistics from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University putting the combined 2010 unemployment, underemployment, and hidden unemployment rate for Black 16- to 29-year-olds at 40 percent and for Black males in general at 43 percent.

There are currently 2 million unemployed people who have exhausted their extended total of 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, and 4 million more “99ers” will be added in 2011.  According to Poole, “the economy would have to grow fast enough to produce 334,000 new jobs a month just to employ these 99ers.”  These statistics make the economic conditions surrounding the Poor People’s Campaign seem comfortable and prosperous in comparison.

One of the signal achievements of the civil rights movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King was the array of federal housing programs aimed at undoing the inadequate housing conditions and discrimination in access to housing.  They were certainly insufficient for the magnitude of the housing crisis in this nation but they represented progress, particularly following the Kerner Commission, created after the assassinations of both Rev. King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.  The 54-page executive summary of the Eisenhower Foundation’s 40 year update of the Kerner Commission report, released in 2008, doesn’t mention the word “foreclosure,” but the tsunami of mortgage foreclosures has become a new housing problem that disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities.

The latest version of the mortgage foreclosure crisis has been the “bank walkaway,” properties that mortgage servicers abandon during the foreclosure process, abandoned because the investors determine that they can’t recoup their costs in the foreclosure process.  These homes became vacant and of course eventually neighborhood eyesores.  The Woodstock Institute documented 1,896 “red flag” homes, as they are called, in Chicago.  Nearly two-thirds of these homes were in neighborhoods that were 80 percent African-American.

Few might remember that in 1966, Rev. King moved his family to Chicago and later that summer led fair-housing marches into all-white neighborhoods.  The protests brought Chicago’s mayor at the time, Richard Daley, to negotiate an agreement with Rev. King, promising fair-housing reforms in exchange for the end of the marches.  Daley reneged on the agreement.  The mortgage foreclosure crisis is not only disproportionately hitting minority homeowners and minority neighborhoods, but undoing the progress of many African-Americans into the ranks of homeownership.  It would seem that the housing chapter in the chronology of civil rights movement achievements is in danger of being reversed.

The nonprofit civil rights organization most closely associated with Rev. Martin Luther King was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  You don’t read much about the SCLC nowadays as it has declined in prominence compared to the NAACP, but it–and the NAACP–reacted to the comments of the new governor of Ohio, John Kasich, regarding the issue of diversity of his cabinet choices.

The SCLC informed Governor Kasich that it would refuse his Martin Luther King day proclamation and told his minority representative, Lynn Stevens, not to show up at its Martin Luther King Jr. Gala in Cleveland.  Why?  The Governor has made 20 cabinet appointments, all of whom are white.  In response to criticism, Kasich said he wanted “the best possible team” and eschewed “metrics” such as racial diversity.  “I can’t say I need to find somebody to fit this metric,” the Governor said, “not when I am trying to get a state that is in deep trouble out of trouble.”

Leaders of local chapters of the SCLC and the NAACP said that they would be willing to meet with the governor to discuss “inclusion, not exclusion,” but the Governor’s office didn’t seem to jump at the offer, saying that the Governor looked forward to working closely with the SCLC in the future “on the issues that matter to all of us.”  Apparently, that means that a diverse state government cabinet isn’t one of those issues.  It used to be important, as one of the principal arguments of the civil rights movement for a more inclusive, representative democracy.  It may be fading in today’s political dynamics.

The civil rights movement of Martin Luther King’s time had a strong focus on school integration.  Today the issue is frequently translated as narrowing the performance gap, not the broader question of the racial integration of student populations.  At a national level, you don’t hear much from the Obama Administration’s Department of Education about integration, but last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a public statement about the termination of the school busing program in Wake County, the largest school district in North Carolina.  “America’s strength has always been a function of its diversity, so it is troubling to see North Carolina’s Wake County school board take steps to reverse a long-standing policy to promote racial diversity in its schools,” Duncan wrote. “I respectfully urge school boards across America to fully consider the consequences before taking such action…[as] (t)his is no time to go backward.”

A member of the Wake board of education, one who sees himself as supportive of the Obama Administration’s education policies, presumably the emphasis on charter schools and other challenges to “traditional” public education, suggested that Duncan didn’t really understand why Wake ended the busing-for-diversity program, and had he investigated, he might have seen things differently.  On the other side of the argument, the chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition which apparently favored continuing the busing policy, called this “a sad moment” and added, “A school system that used to get press for having the national superintendent of the year and being a stronghold for best practices is now getting written up for dismantling policies that maintained diversity in our school system.” It sounds and feels like a modern replay of Brown vs. the Board of Education, in this case asking how important racially integrated schools are to fairness and equality in education.  As North Carolina school districts such as Wake County and Charlotte/Mecklenburg precipitously reverse school integration programs, integration as opposed to quantitative measures of school performance may be returning to the nation’s civil rights agenda.

The YouthBuild day of service project co-sponsored with the Red Sox contains a dollop of historical irony.  Despite its very liberal image as well as its importance in the abolitionist movement, Boston has had a very troubled history of race relations.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary, the nation’s oldest chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is, not surprisingly, in Boston.  Some, such as Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, want that anniversary accompanied by a frank conversation of Boston’s troubled history and other legacies of lagging social progress — including in sports, with the Red Sox being the last major league baseball team to sign an African-American ballplayer (Pumpsie Green, more than ten years after Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers).  But the Boston chapter of the NAACP has been pretty much invisible for the last decade; some people even thought that the chapter had shut down.

The challenge for the NAACP, the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, and other active or quiescent civil rights organizations isn’t to determine how much worse Boston might have been compared to other northern cities over the years.  Rather, the question is, what are the contemporary issues that constitute the action agenda for old, new, and revived civil rights organizations.  What do they have to say to racial and ethnic minorities–and to all of society–about the discriminatory impact of problems such as mortgage foreclosures, unemployment and underemployment, the gaps in the performance of kids in public and private schools, and other contemporary flashpoints in social policy?

Does a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service program, mobilizing volunteers for community service projects, allow foundations a window to opt out of the hard work for civil rights and social action?  Foundations hardly appear entranced by the prospect of putting money into civil rights and social action, the subject area which captured 1.5 percent of top foundation grant dollars in 2000 but only 1.2 percent in 2007 and the same proportion in 2008.  By field-oriented recipient, grants for civil rights organizations likewise fell as a proportion of top foundation grant dollars from 1.4 percent in 2000 to 1.1 percent.

While service projects seem to be on the upswing, not just on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but in public policy overall, the hard work of community improvement and community development is also falling behind, dropping from 3.5 percent of foundation grant dollars in 2000 (reaching 4.2 percent in 2002 and 4.4 percent in 2004) to 3.1 percent in 2008.  Similarly, grant dollars to community improvement organizations fell from 4.0 percent of foundation grant dollars in 2000 (5.1 percent in 1999 and 5.2 percent in 2002) to 3.6 percent in 2008.

We are frequently reminded that the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King’s day was not very connected to, much less dependent on institutional philanthropy.  A few foundations did provide crucial support to some of the important civil rights organizations, notably the Taconic Foundation, the Field Foundation, and the Stern Family Fund.   There was a Taconic Foundation official who once said that it was the police dogs of Selma’s Bull Connors who “helped open the capitalists’  [read: philanthropic donors’] wallets” to the civil rights movement.  Our nation has progressed far from the days of Bull Connor.  But 2010’s spikes in foreclosures and unemployment—with a projected increase in foreclosures and a stubbornly high unemployment rate forecast for 2011—should be a powerful rallying call for foundations to put their resources toward rectifying these debilitating societal conditions.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day service projects honor the nation’s foremost civil rights leader.  But the work challenge of civil rights in the social, economic, and political arenas is hardly finished or answered.  With more than one of out ten people in the labor force suffering unemployment or underemployment, with housing foreclosures spiking in 2010 and predicted to increase substantially more in 2011, there are persistent issues of social and economic civil rights that motivated Rev. King to plan the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, issues that merit comparable attention for public policy organizing and advocacy today—supplemented, not supplanted by day-of-service projects.


Entry filed under: Civic Affairs, Commentaries.

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