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Martin Luther King Day: Renewing a Spirit of Empowerment

I asked Harry to write about how AASCU campuses might use MLK Day as a launching point for “We the People” activities. Below is his description of how this might be done. Please watch for the release of the updated MLK Day Guide. I will send it out next week.

Harry writes an update to this blog post about the similarities between the Freedom Movement and the We the People movement. Read it here. –  Cecilia M. Orphan

By Harry C. Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

I am writing from South Africa after two days of remarkable conversation with students, staff, and faculty at the University of the Free State in Blomfontein. I was impressed yet again with the similarity between the spirit of empowerment that infused the freedom movement against apartheid in South Africa  and the same spirit in freedom movement which shaped me as a college student in the 1960s at Duke University.

Parallels extend to the present. The “We the People” movement for citizenship and citizen empowerment has parallels here in South Africa. “Students have a very strong desire to become effective agents of change,” said Moses, a student leader in the University of the Free State. Alan Boesak, a legendary religious leader during the anti-apartheid years now meets regularly with students at the University of the Free State. He echoed Moses’ thought. “I have not had such conversations with students about the need to make change the 1980s.”

With these conversation fresh on my mind, I’ve been thinking about how Martin Luther King Day might be more than a commemoration of past history or occasions for service projects. How can it become a time for laying groundwork for movement building that reclaims democracy as the work of the people?

Here are four possible activities in the vein of “We the People” movement building for Martin Luther King Day:

  • Use the day to hold discussions, reading groups, forums, and debates on the deep and often overlooked themes of organizing for empowerment that infused the freedom movement, themes that are as fresh and relevant today as in the 1960s. Sources include Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – note especially the conclusion, where King argues that the movement is calling the whole nation back to “the great wells of democracy dug deep” at the nation’s founding – what do you think he meant? Also Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (which describes the distinction between “mobilizing” and “organizing” in the movement); and Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Struggle (which tells the story of the remarkable Ella Baker, who went south with the charge to help create a sense of overall movement out of scattered islands of discontent).
  • Hold a debate on “populism.”  In a conversation I had as a young college student with Dr. King in St. Augustine in 1964, told me he was a “populist,” by which he meant something very different than the way the term is used today to describe figures like Sarah Palin or disgruntled protestors like the Tea Party. King meant the movements for democratic change that stretched from the black and white farmers coalitions of the 1880s through the farmer and labor movements of the 1930s to the freedom movement of the sixties. The debate: what is populism?
  • Martin Luther King and the freedom movement held a view of government very different than the “pro” and “anti” government politics of today. Government was a complicated but essential resource for the movement, that need to be challenged but also that required effective partnership building work. Sometimes politicians and government workers deeply disappointed us in the movement, when they turned a blind eye to brutality; sometimes (as with the case of Hubert Humphrey or elements of the Justice Department) they were partners who exposed injustices and worked with us to pass historic civic rights legislation. But the idea of “We the People” government was alive and well, and the civil rights movement inspired a generation of public policies called “maximum feasible participation,” in which citizens participated extensively in the design and implement of government programs. Find examples of “We the People” government still alive in your community, or discuss how they might be created between young people and government agencies.
  • Public Achievement, the youth empowerment and organizing initiative which several ADP campuses have adopted, descends from the citizenship schools of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Explore the possibilities of Public Achievement as a living “citizenship school” in the tradition of the freedom movement for your campus. For more information about Public Achievement, visit this website.

For an updated version of the ADP/NASPA MLK Day Guide, please visit this website.

Question: What are you planning to do to celebrate MLK Day?

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