This month we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday created in the 1980s and not fully recognized by all states until 2000, when New Hampshire became the last to acknowledge the day.
MLK Day is always a hard one for me because the celebration presents as performative and highlights our continued hypocrisy with race. As we look at commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. this January, it’s important to explore how your company may be pushing a whitewashed version of one of America’s most important martyrs. Take some time to learn about the evolution of his leadership in civil rights and how his journey evolved into being a movement dominated by concepts of economic justice and equity.
Most would agree that Martin Luther King Jr. is a profile in courage and widely revered as someone who led America to a more equitable future. I am sure Martin would be quite surprised to hear that narrative told about him, considering at the time of his assassination he was labeled a communist spy and terrorist, allegedly dedicated to destroying the country.
His push for integration was said to be too radical even for Democrats at that time. In 1962, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover both agreed to keep tabs on MLK through federally approved wiretaps and surveillance through COINTELPRO, a domestic counterintelligence program. COINTELPRO used covert and often illegal tactics to gain information from Civil Rights leaders and many others in our country in order to disrupt, discredit and destroy the people and/or organizations they represented. MLK was not a beloved figure in our country back then and the contrast is clear.
King’s Legacy Is Broader
Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is much broader than the March on Washington. His work was dedicated to uplifting black people and joining together a rainbow coalition of peers, where all sit at society’s proverbial table as valued members. Yet he was murdered marching with garbage workers while organizing the Poor Peoples Campaign. In his life his focus evolved from electoral equity to economic equity. King understood that economic equity had to be a goal of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Negroes have benefited from a limited change that was emotionally satisfying but materially deficient…. Jobs are harder to create than voting rolls,” King said in an op-ed for Nation Magazine in 1966.
Many business leaders assume and profess that they would have supported King’s work then. Is this really true? From my personal lens, there is nothing stopping business leaders from supporting his work today.
King was clear on how workers should be treated with dignity and respect saying, “It seems to me that the civil rights movement must now begin to organize for the guaranteed annual income, began to organize people all over our country and mobilize forces … which I believe will go a long, long way toward dealing with the Negro’s economic problem and the economic problem with many other poor people confronting our nation.”
Days of service and social media posts about your company’s support for Dr. King are definitely a step in the right direction. But also, try taking some time this holiday to look at how you can begin to integrate elements of his economic agenda into your company, as this would be another way to honor him that is more reflective of his philosophy, that he was dedicated enough to die for.
After marching on Washington, Dr. King marched on American capitalism, understanding that the ballot would not be enough to free Black people and that we would also need to close the wealth gap for true equity in our country. It’s truly a great reminder of how the business community might truly honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.