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The Undefeated, January 2017

“Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not only for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all a day of service,” wrote King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.

In Atlanta, where King pastored, volunteers will hand out energy-efficient light bulbs in low-income communities. In Chicago, where King lived briefly to draw attention to segregated housing, volunteers will package food for needy elderly residents and give coats to the homeless.

In Memphis, Tennessee, where King was killed nearly 50 years ago, volunteers will pick up trash in more than a dozen neighborhoods.

But to honor King mainly through benevolence is to overlook the civil rights leader’s commitment to the working poor.

People today have a “fairly limited, sanitized view of King’s legacy,” said Marc Bayard, director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.

“There’s nothing wrong with cleaning up neighborhoods, but there’s also nothing wrong with joining the Fight for $15.”

While volunteers arm themselves with Hefty bags to wage war on litter, they should ponder some fundamental questions, Bayard said.

“Why do these neighborhoods that have to be cleaned up — why are these the neighborhoods that have the higher rates of crime and higher rates of poverty? Why are these communities the target of redlining?” asked Bayard.

In the last months of his life, King was consumed with plans for a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign. But on Feb. 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers in Memphis were crushed to death in a malfunctioning garbage truck. Not two weeks later, the workers went on strike to demand fair pay, benefits and union recognition.

“The fact that he took time to go to Memphis, not once but twice, to be with the sanitation workers, showed his commitment to economic justice,” Bayard said. ...
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