This article is crossposted to the Avodah website. Learn more about Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps and their network of Jewish leaders.
[pullquote align=right] We find ourselves on the precipice of a new presidency.
[/pullquote]This year, as we celebrate what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 88th birthday, we find ourselves on the precipice of a new presidency. Many people will be taking this opportunity to volunteer, participate in days of service (known in the Jewish world as “mitzah days”) and engage in other social action-related events, tying direct service to Dr. King’s call “to serve.”

This work is exceedingly worthwhile; service is an important way to address the immediate ills of society while working for the systemic change needed to eliminate these ills.  And yet, I struggle with this misinterpretation of Dr. King’s legacy each and every year. These kinds of direct service are not the main kind of service at the center of Dr. King’s life work. Dr King stood for love and serving others, yes, but his understanding of the Bible’s call to love your neighbor was through radical racial and economic justice.
[pullquote align=left] Leaders of the next government are talking about cutting the social safety net and rolling back civil rights protections.
[/pullquote]As he wrote,
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” His service involved giving his voice, his strategy, and his life to attacking systemic injustices–helping to restructure the edifice itself. His methods included direct nonviolent collective action–including strikes and boycotts–political advocacy, lobbying, building coalitions, convincing and challenging adversaries, and speaking truth to power. He was a key player in a community organized bus boycott that lasted more than a year, went to jail countless times for nonviolent protest, sacrificed his working relationship with President Johnson in order to repeatedly challenge him on the Vietnam War, and was in Memphis supporting striking public workers when he was assassinated.
There are crucially important ways that you can honor Dr. King’s work and legacy by helping to restructure the edifice, especially at this time when leaders of the next government are talking about cutting the social safety net and rolling back civil rights protections.
Here are some ways that you can mark Dr. King’s birthday:

  • #BlackLivesMatter protest by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ)Are there racial justice groups (for example, Black Lives Matter or Showing Up For Racial Justice) or immigration justice groups (United We Dream) in your area doing anything to mark the day? Perhaps they’re holding a rally, teach in, demonstration, press conference, training, advocacy day? Begin the work of building relationships with other people working on these issues in your community.
  • Are there other organizations working on issues at the intersection of racial and economic justice work, such as housing justice and criminal justice reform, that are doing anything to mark the day? Are they holding a rally, teach in, demonstration, press conference, training, advocacy day? (Note: If you’re in Brooklyn, GetOrganized BK, a group tackling a variety of these important issues, is having a meeting at 7pm at Congregation Beth Elohim. More details here.)
  • , #BlackLivesMatter protest by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ)Is there a picket line or a direct action that could use donations of time and / or resources?
  • The Voting Rights Act, one of the hallmark national legislative victories Dr. King was a part of winning in his lifetime, was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, which in 2013 struck down one key provision and rendered another key provision unenforceable. This, coupled with horrific gerrymandering and restrictive voter laws, are among many of the things that make it extremely difficult for people of color to have their voices heard fairly in the electoral process. What local groups are working on this issue near you?
  • Chances are all of your levels of government have started legislative session by now, even if they’re off for the observance. Are there bills around racial justice you can advocate for? Are there measures cutting the social safety net to which you can register your opposition? Check to see if racial and economic justice groups have highlighted legislative policies about which you can call a city, state, or federal elected official.
  • Are you at an organization that’s doing a volunteer day/mitzvah day for Dr. King’s birthday? Great! Spend some time looking at the organization itself. How is your organization doing in terms of racially just hiring practices? Does everyone who works there have a living wage, decent health care, sick, vacation and family leave time? Do they have time off for their faith’s holy days without impacting their vacation time? Does your organization procure supplies from businesses owned by people of color, or from unionized businesses?
  • Bronx Defenders rally for criminal justice reformIf you’re planning a mitzvah day or volunteer day and cannot, for whatever reason, try any of the steps listed above, there are other questions to consider. Are you learning and teaching about the importance of structural change in addition to service? Are you talking about some of Dr King’s philosophies beyond the beautiful, if overly-quoted ending of the “I Have a Dream” speech? Are you investing in learning about what Dr. King meant by “service” ? Are you engaged in activities that directly address poverty and put you in proximity with people affected by systemic inequities? Are you buying supplies for your event from businesses owned by people of color or from unionized businesses or worker co-ops? Are the products fairly made?

Dr. King once said, “I believe that we can work within the framework of our democracy to make for a better distribution of wealth, and I believe that God has left enough and to spare in this world for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life. I will never be satisfied, and I will never be content, until all men and all women can have the basic necessities of life.”¹
Hopefully, this list gives us a few ideas of how to carry this mission forward to make America more just. Here’s wishing you a meaningful Dr. King’s Birthday.
¹Speech given to RWDSU Local 65, September 8, 1962 in Monticello, NY