Casting the MLK holiday as a Day of Service sterilizes King’s radical demands for socioeconomic equality. King was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a strike by public employees, and soon thereafter organized labor led the movement to make his birthday into a national holiday. The intent was not to devote the day to volunteering, but for workers, especially marginalized African-American employees, to enjoy a well-deserved paid day off in commemoration of a man who championed their cause.
Politicians resisted celebrating an anti-war, pro-labor figure for decades. Fittingly, they justified their opposition by pointing to the cost of paying public employees for a day off. It was fifteen years before the federal government enacted the holiday in 1983 (just as the War on Drugs was ushering in the age of mass African-American incarceration), and it was not until the year 2000 that all 50 states recognized the day. Many states only allowed the holiday after crafting a way to avoid giving public employees an additional day off: by eliminating another paid holiday or by combining MLK Day with a pre-existing holiday, namely Robert E. Lee Day. That’s right, doubling down on perversity, some Southern states are today honoring a pacifist civil rights activist alongside the general who fought a war for slave-owners.
Some states claimed that honoring a single private citizen was inappropriate and named the holiday Civil Rights Day (New Hampshire) or Human Rights Day (Utah, Idaho), exemplifying the posture that conservatives and libertarians sometimes strike in order to claim they are the true champions of equality because they stand for all individuals regardless of categories like race. This ruse applies the ahistorical logic of an empty equality divorced from the reality of ongoing power dynamics. The same logic argues that socioeconomic inequality should be remedied by volunteer work and charitable giving rather than by government — ignoring the ongoing history of violence underpinning inequality.