King's Disappointment

Both King and Gandhi were frustrated that they could get people to protest but not to serve.

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When high-caste Indians refused to do the work of untouchables and join in cleaning the stinking latrines at a Great Indian Congress assembly, Gandhi organized a volunteer service corps to clean the latrines. "Why wait for independence for the necessary drain-cleaning?" he asked.

Martin took the same approach. In launching the Montgomery Improvement Association to run the bus boycott, Martin involved this Gandhian theme of service, saying they were organizing not just to fight segregation but to keep on working to improve all of Montgomery and create the "Beloved Community."

But King and Gandhi were both regularly disappointed when they tried to turn their followers to the hard work and occasional drudgery of constructive service. To the militants' 1960s cry of "Burn, baby, burn," King said, No, the watchword should be "Learn, baby, learn." In the long lulls between great protest campaigns, Martin struggled to engage people in constructive service and create the institutions for justice in America.

At the end of his life, Gandhi called himself a failure because he could not persuade Hindus and Muslims to come together as one India, and because that other side of the coin, constructive service, had never taken hold of the Indian mind.

Gandhi said he could get a million people to go into the streets, to march in protest, and nonviolently to turn the other cheek when they were beaten with clubs; he could get a hundred thousand to go to jail--but he couldn't get 10 thousand, not even one thousand, to carry through, every day, the 13-fold constructive program.

So there is a time for everything, as Martin used to say, citing Ecclesiastes: "a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to break down, and a time to build up."

For America, and for the legacy of Martin Luther King, it is morally and strategically right now to focus on service, and to turn that service into the kind of force that Gandhi and King believed it could become.

In today's world, we can ask, "Why wait for the government to act in order to tutor and mentor millions of young people who seem to be heading for disaster in life?" The most urgent and persistent question for us now is not how to overturn evil laws but how to point kids in the right direction, how to build the community institutions needed to fulfill the American dream--Martin's dream. I believe that Martin Luther King would see this beginning of the 21st century not as a time to go to jail to protest evil laws but as a time to build.

So Coretta Scott King is profoundly right when she says: "The greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the holiday by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others."

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