Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover
Last night my husband worried that my website was broken.  He’d visited my blog but only saw an image of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and a quote:


“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

That was it.

I wanted to commemorate the holiday but oddly found myself without much to say.  So I posted one photo, one quote, no commentary and called it a day.

At the time, I considered the post to be a quick prompt for readers’ self-reflection. Today it feels more like a cop out, evidence of my own refusal to really grapple with MLK Day and the unfinished work of its namesake.

No Days Off

Fortunately, another writer, also named Maya, was not at a loss for words.

PhillyMag.com columnist Maya K. Francis wrote a piece, titled Why MLK Day Should Be a Day of Atonement, Not a Day of Service. In it, she ripped into the commercials and tweets that grossly seized Dr. King’s “dream”  to push discordant products and causes. (We’re talking about you, PETA.)

Hitting closer to home, she also called regular folk to task for feeling unduly satisfied with quick inner-city service jaunts when King’s legacy demands something more radical.

Reminding us of King’s courage, conscience and fortitude, Francis wrote:

Let us not forget as we quote him, as we click today’s Google Doodle, that he was a man — a young man — once considered a dangerous enemy of the state despite both practicing and encouraging a doctrine of non-violent resistance to advance the socioeconomic standing of both blacks in America and those of all races living in poverty. Now repackaged into a gentle giant of man who gave a great speech one day about togetherness (much in the same way that former South African president Nelson Mandela was), we have sanitized the ferocity of his words, the insistence of his cause and his earnestness of his language, the imperative and uncompromising nature of now.

“‘I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth,” he says in his third book, powerfully titled, Why We Can’t Wait, the first parts of which were written inside a Birmingham jail in 1963. “It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively.”

Francis mentions “self-awareness” and “remorse” as characteristics of the kind of atonement she seeks, but I would love to hear the specifics of what she has in mind.  Who exactly needs to atone today? For what and how?

What Looks Like Atonement On An Ordinary Day

As a person who has benefited from rare educational and economic opportunity, I felt indicted by Francis’ reminder that no mere day of service could pay acceptable tribute to King’s legacy. Like so many, I had been lulled into the “I Have a Dream” sound bite fog. I forgot the edge and the bite of King’s voluminous other admonishments to speak up and do something substantive to alleviate poverty and injustice.

Before reading Francis’s piece, I was patting myself on the back for all of my “service.”  By lunchtime today, I had already attended a nonprofit board meeting, sent a dozen emails educating friends about domestic violence in our community, donated to a home for homeless veterans and written pro bono marketing materials for a local arts nonprofit.  And here I sit after 10 p.m. writing a blog post after finishing a conference call for yet another “service” group.

But now, thanks to Francis’s thought-provoking commentary, I’m questioning the depth of that service and asking myself some tougher questions to honor King’s memory:

  • How great is my responsibility to the most vulnerable among us?
  • How far will I go in the service of their needs?
  • How focused, faithful and fervent will I be in this pursuit?
  • And, in keeping with the theme of this blog, what will I give up to make activism a priority?

Time will tell.