In a letter written while incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama for protesting racial segregation in 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
For sixty years, Dr. King’s simple but profound articulation of injustice has galvanized Americans to act in service of our shared struggles—–and to advocate for the humanity of our neighbors. Dr. King knew that humanity is intersectional; our identities and experiences are interconnected and interwoven. And in the tapestry of our humanity, a threat of injustice to one of us is a threat of injustice to us all.
In his letter, Dr. King went on to say, “we exist in an inescapable network of mutuality”. The ripple effect of a singular injustice is significant and withstanding; we are all tethered to the same anchor of injustice; no one is free until we are all free.
But Dr. King did not write about injustice to evoke despair. His writings inspired direct, collective action and broad, systemic change. Dr. King knew that cutting the weeds of racism would not end segregation. Eliminating racism requires destroying the poisoned roots and filtering the soil.
“Injustice must be rooted out bystrong, persistent, and determined action”. - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Meaning: our work fighting injustice as nonprofit fundraisers, local leaders, community organizers, and issue-oriented advocates is actually dispelling injustice well-beyond the scope of our individual work. Because fighting injustice anywhere is essential to restoring justice everywhere.
Service in the Spirit of Dr. King
While we’ve celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day since 1983, our country continues to face many of the injustices that Dr. King fought against during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Racism, colorism, anti-Blackness, race-motivated hate crimes, police brutality, voter suppression, mass incarceration, racial wage gaps, and bias are all fundamentally engrained into our culture and have yet to be rooted out. The nationwide protests that erupted following the 2020 murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery demonstrated how civil rights in America still hang in the balance.
That’s why the work of Black and Brown activists, Black-led nonprofit organizations, and allies working to combat racism and fight injustice in the spirit of Dr. King make us hopeful for a better future where Black Lives Matter and Black lives are celebrated, not only in death and more than once a year.
And while our cultural conscious has evolved to largely accept Dr. King’s teachings, revisionist history often forgets that Dr. King’s civil rights work was not popular in 1960s America.
In the 1960s, eliminating segregation and ending racism was viewed as radical and threatening to the preservation of the nuclear family, whiteness, and racial hierarchy. Today, abolishing modern systems that perpetuate racism is similarly objectionable by those who benefit from racial privilege.
Dr. King was both radically visible and purposely powerful as an outspoken, Black, landmark civil rights leader in a time when all three made him a target for both violence and incarceration––both of which he experienced as a result of his civil rights leadership. Dr. King was assassinated in a race-motivated murder in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
While we celebrate the civil rights work of Dr. King, it is critical that we acknowledge that his life was tragically cut short by the same racism and violence that he fought against. But his work to end racism did not end in his death; it is carried out by civil rights activists following in the footsteps of Dr. King, who remind us that there is no peace in passivity. Our work forging a path of progress may be unpopular, but we will one day be on the right side of history.
Honoring Dr. King Through Active Anti-Racism
When we celebrate MLK Day, we are also saying ‘Black Lives Matter’. When we celebrate MLK Day, we are also saying ‘protect Black trans women’. When we celebrate MLK Day, we are also saying ‘end police brutality and mass incarceration’. Because all of our struggles are interwoven.
Honoring the life of Dr. King through the spirit of public service means we must not only reflect on what Dr. King accomplished during the Civil Rights Movement, but actively continue his legacy into the future.
We cannot only celebrate Black lives in history, we must also work tooth-in-nail to build a better world that supports and uplifts Black lives today.
Some of our favorite organizations working to address racism and preserve civil rights:
- The Innocence Project is ending wrongful incarceration and transforming the criminal justice system
- NAACP Legal Defense Fund is fighting for racial justice by using the law to defend Black Americans
- National Urban League works to advance civil rights and economically empower urban communities
- Foundation for Black Philanthropy celebrates Black giving by leveraging the power of collective community generosity to make small, local impact
- Color of Change is a nationwide organization fighting racism and injustice through political and social campaigns that move the needle towards anti-racism in America
- Equal Justice Initiative is challenging racial injustice and mass incarceration by addressing the legacy of slavery that exists in systems of American imprisonment, policing, punishment, and poverty.
- Southern Poverty Law Center is fighting racism and hate by monitoring extremist groups and homegrown terrorism, including the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi movement, and other American hate groups.
How Your Nonprofit Can Recognize MLK Day
In the spirit of service and in recognition of the federal holiday, your nonprofit may choose to publicly honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 16, 2023.
Best practices for nonprofits honoring MLK Day:
- Center Black activists and Black-led organizations
- Uplift mutual aid and local community fundraisers
- Donate to your local bail fund
- Share local, state, and national resources with your network
- Reiterate and reaffirm your commitment to anti-racism both online and offline (let’s see that DEIA statement in action!)
- White activists and allies––don’t make it about you! Instead, take the opportunity to educate yourself, connect with Black-led nonprofits, or if applicable, highlight how your nonprofit programming is addressing intersectional issues impacted by structural racism
Resources for Learning More
Friends, our work has just begun. This is just the tip of the iceberg. To dive deeper on anti-racism, civil rights advocacy, and centering racial justice, check out these resources:
- The Anti-Racist Starter Pack
- National Museum of African American History & Culture Resource List
- Race Matters for Juvenile Justice
- Coretta Scott King Book Award Winners
- “Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race” Resource Roundup from Pretty Good
- “From MLK Jr to Black Lives Matter: America’s Racial Reckoning” from PBS
Key Takeaways for Nonprofits Honoring Dr. King 🔑
- Honor with action: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a National Day of Service. Words matter, but action drives change. Consider taking action by making a donation to or uplifting the work of a local organization working to eliminate racism in your area.
- Educate to erase hate: Allies always have more to learn. Get educated about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, the work of Dr. King, and how modern racial justice movements build on his legacy
- Anti-racism is allyship in action: It’s not enough to recognize Dr. King once a year. Practicing anti-racism is the best way to serve in the spirit of Dr. King all year long.