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A Day of Service is a Disservice to the Truth of MLK's Life, Death, and Witness

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"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." MLK

By Edward Curtin AFSCME | .I've Been to the Mountaintop. by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Martin Luther King's birthday is celebrated with a national holiday, his death day disappears down the memory hole. Across the country -- in response to the King Holiday and Service Act passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton in 1994 -- people will be encouraged to make the day one of service (from Latin, servus = slave). Etymological irony aside, such service does not include King's commitment to protesting a decadent system of racial and economic injustice or non-violently resisting the warfare state that is the United States. Government sponsored service is cultural neo-liberalism at its finest.

The word service is a loaded word. It connotes many things, such as military service ("Were you ever in the service?"), community service ("She was sentenced to 30 days of community service."), being of service to others, etc. It has also become a vogue word over the past 25 years -- e.g. Service Learning (1995), etc. Its popularity and use arose and expanded in tandem with the privatization of social life, services, and the expansion of work for free, such as unpaid internships and articles like this for which this author receives no remuneration. I see it as part of the privatization and unpaid volunteer movement engineered by the elites in recent decades. This cult of the service volunteer is a form of social control and capitalist exploitation aimed at inducing passivity in an individualized and divided population to prevent radical social change.

Its use for MLK Day is clear: individuals are encouraged to volunteer for activities such as tutoring children, painting senior centers, or delivering meals to the elderly. Clearly these are wonderful deeds when done on individual initiative and not through government, corporate, and institutional public relations aimed at concealing an American prophet's radical message and his brutal assassination.

The America Association of State Colleges and Universities describes it as follows: "The MLK Day of Service is part of United We Serve, the President's national call to service initiative. It calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems. The MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King's vision of a 'Beloved Community'."

This is sheer nonsense. Such service is a far cry from King's campaign to transform the institutional structures of American society. It in no way provides solutions to "our most pressing national problems" or "creates solutions to social problems." But a day of such individual volunteer service once a year does make people feel good about themselves. Thus the government, corporate, and educational institutions strongly encourage it, as if Martin Luther King were born volunteering at the local food pantry and Oprah Winfrey were cheering him on.

After all, King was not assassinated because he had spent his heroic life promoting individual volunteerism. To understand his life and death -- to celebrate the man -- "it is essential to realize although he is popularly depicted and perceived as a civil rights leader, he was much more than that. A non-violent revolutionary, he personified the most powerful force for a long overdue social, political, and economic reconstruction of the nation." Those are the words of William Pepper, the King family lawyer, from his comprehensive and definitive study of the King assassination, The Plot to Kill King.

In other words, Martin Luther King was a transmitter of a radical non-violent spiritual and political energy so plenipotent that his very existence was a threat to an established order based on institutionalized violence, racism, and economic exploitation. He was a very dangerous man to the U.S. government and all the institutional and deep state forces armed against him. That is why they spied on him (and his father and grandfather going back to 1917) and used dirty tricks to try to destroy him. When he denounced the Vietnam War and announced his Poor People's Campaign and intent to lead a massive peaceful encampment of hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C., he set off panic in the bowels of government spies and their masters. As Stokely Carmichael, co-chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, said to King in a conversation secretly recorded by Army Intelligence, "The man don't care you call ghettos concentration camps, but when you tell him his war machine is nothing but hired killers, you got trouble."

Revolutionaries are, of course, anathema to the power elites who, with all their might, resist such rebels' efforts to transform society. If they can't buy them off, they knock them off. Forty-nine years after King's assassination, the causes he fought for -- civil rights, the end to U.S. wars of aggression, and economic justice for all -- remain not only unfulfilled, but have worsened in so many respects. And King's message has been enervated by the sly trick of giving him a national holiday and then urging Americans to make it "a day of service." The vast majority of those who innocently participate in these activities have no idea who killed King, or why. If they did, they might pause in their tracks, suspend their "service" activities, and convene a teach-in on the truth of these matters. William Pepper would be summoned.

Because MLK repeatedly called the United States the "greatest purveyor of violence on earth," he was universally condemned by the mass media and government that later -- once he was long and safely dead and no longer a threat -- praised him to the heavens. This has continued to the present day of historical amnesia.

For the government that honors Dr. King with a national holiday killed him. This is the suppressed truth behind the highly promoted day of service. It is what you are not supposed to know.

If you are supposed to know anything about his death day as you go about your day of service, it is the following.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at 6:01 PM as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was shot in the lower right side of his face by one rifle bullet that shattered his jaw, damaged his upper spine, and came to rest below his left shoulder blade. The U. S. government claimed the assassin was a racist loner named James Earl Ray, a petty criminal, who had escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary on April 23, 1967. Ray was alleged to have fired the fatal shot from a second-floor bathroom window of a rooming house above the rear of Jim's Grill across the street. Running to his rented room, Ray allegedly gathered his belongings, including the rifle, in a bedspread-wrapped bundle, rushed out the front door onto the adjoining street, and in a panic dropped the bundle in the doorway of the Canipe Amusement Company a few doors down. He was then said to have jumped into his white Mustang and driven to Atlanta where he abandoned the car. From there he fled to Canada and then England where he was eventually arrested at Heathrow Airport on June 8, 1968 and extradited to the U.S. The state claims that the money Ray needed to purchase the car and for all his travel was secured through various robberies and a bank heist. They allege that he was motivated by racism and that he was a bitter and deranged loner.

However, William Pepper's decades-long investigation not only refutes the flimsy case against James Earl Ray, but definitively proves that King was killed by a government conspiracy led by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Army Intelligence, and Memphis Police, assisted by southern Mafia figures. He is right to assert that "we have probably acquired more detailed knowledge about this political assassination than we have ever had about any previous historical event." This makes the silence around this case even more shocking.

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Edward Curtin is a widely published author. His new book is Seeking Truth in A Country of Lies - His website is

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