President’s Column: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Call to Service
by Scott M. McElhaney
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Later this month, on January 20th, we will celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Many of our offices will be closed. The Dallas Bar Association will host its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration and present the Martin Luther King, Jr. Justice Award to a worthy recipient: State Representative Rafael Anchia. Other groups in the area will also honor the day with parades and speeches. But as happened with some commemorations of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, celebrating the progress our society has made in the area of civil rights can obscure the full measure of King’s message. Too often, we lose sight of the fact that King’s work as a minister and civil rights leader not only promoted the cause of racial equality, but also challenged us to address the prevalence of poverty in our country. While we as a bar association are not equipped to solve all of the problems confronting society or the poor, we all have the ability, and the responsibility, to do our part to answer King’s call to do something for others.
Dr. King is often described as being a modern-day prophet to America who led the country out of its Jim Crow past and towards racial equality. We rightly celebrate King’s dream that all people be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. But the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last year and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 later this year are not occasions to just congratulate ourselves for the progress the country has made. The “White Only” sign above a water fountain on the first floor of the Dallas County Records Building is a faded remnant of what it once was, and the arguments about it concern how to present what a plaque on the wall now calls an “unpleasant portion of our history.” But if King were alive today, he would likely not tell us that the advancements we have made in racial justice are simply a part of history, nor would he allow us to relax now.
The words of prophets like Dr. King make people uncomfortable because those messages challenge the status quo and confront the ways in which people fail to live up to their ideals. During the civil rights movement, King had to deal with moderates of the time who favored desegregation, but who thought that King wanted change too quickly. King’s famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was addressed to fellow clergymen who thought that the marches for civil rights in Birmingham—during which King was arrested for parading without a permit—were “unwise and untimely.” King’s Letter responded that “‘Wait has almost always meant ‘Never’” and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” and this response is now seen as a defining message of the movement and a catalyst for more rapid progress.
One aspect of Dr. King’s message that bears repeating today is his advocacy for the poor. This advocacy was part of King’s philosophy of fighting what he called the “triple evils” of racism, poverty and militarism, which stood as barriers to what he described as the “Beloved Community.” Many recall that King went to Memphis before his assassination in April of 1968 to support a group of sanitation workers who were striking over unfair wages and working conditions. Fewer remember the extent to which King’s focus shifted in the final years of his life to the condition of the underprivileged and plans for the Poor People’s Campaign. King saw it as a part of his ministry to combat poverty, writing that “[n]o individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’”
Today, 15 percent of Americans, roughly 46.5 million people, are stuck living at or below the poverty line. In Texas, 17.2 percent, or over 4.4 million, live in poverty. To be sure, the causes of poverty are varied and the poverty rate is affected by both national conditions and global economic forces beyond the control of any individual. But Dr. King’s message was for each of us to consider what we can do to address the effects of poverty and improve the condition of the poor.
Individually and collectively, our efforts can produce positive change. The Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. It has been called “a day on, not a day off.” We should all try to honor the legacy of Dr. King by volunteering for service in some way, whether it be working at a food bank, cleaning an area park, or mentoring a student.
However, as lawyers, we are able to help address the vast unmet legal needs of the poor. The Dallas Bar Association has a proud tradition of working to meet those needs. Last year the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program closed more than 4,500 cases and Dallas lawyers donated almost 20,000 hours of service to the poor. Lawyers like you who volunteer to take a case through the DVAP program have helped stop unjust evictions, fight deceptive business practices, and keep abusive spouses away. Each of these things can help remove barriers that prevent poor people from building a better life and climbing out of poverty. We are justly proud of this record of service. But there is more to do. DVAP still has to turn away too many clients because cases cannot be placed.
Volunteering for DVAP service is easy. You can staff an intake clinic or volunteer to take a case by contacting DVAP through the Dallas Bar’s website. You may also choose to serve the community in some other way. Whatever we do, Martin Luther King Day is a chance to start the year off right by re-committing ourselves to the nation by serving each other and our communities.