MLK Scholar: The Need For Service Now Greater Than Ever Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s fight for civil rights is marked by the call for service. But the need to help others remains as great today. Tell Me More host Michel Martin speaks with James Braxton Peterson, assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at Bucknell University who has lectured about the life and times of Dr. King.
NPR logo

MLK Scholar: The Need For Service Now Greater Than Ever

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
MLK Scholar: The Need For Service Now Greater Than Ever

MLK Scholar: The Need For Service Now Greater Than Ever

MLK Scholar: The Need For Service Now Greater Than Ever

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s fight for civil rights is marked by the call for service. But the need to help others remains as great today. Tell Me More host Michel Martin speaks with James Braxton Peterson, assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at Bucknell University who has lectured about the life and times of Dr. King.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This is the day we acknowledge the birth of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the civil rights leader and humanitarian. And while we are certainly aware that the tragedy in Haiti continues, we have a team of reporters there and they will continue to bring you up to date.

So, we thought it was important to pause to talk about what this day means and the legacy Dr. King has left us. In a few minutes, we'll visit with three students. Each attends one of the academic institutions that helped to train and shape Dr. King. And we'll ask the students about how they see social justice and ministry today.

But first, we want to talk about something else Dr. King stood for, service. What does that mean today? Being in service during the era of the American Civil Rights Movement, even to feed the hungry and work on issues like literacy often meant encountering violent opposition. Not so today. But the concept of service still faces its own challenges.

So to talk more about that, we've called upon James Braxton Peterson. He is assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University. He's lectured extensively about the life and times of Dr. King and he's with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Professor JAMES BRAXTON PETERSON (English and Africana Studies, Bucknell University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I wanted to start with a subject that I think is very much on people's minds today and that, of course, is the tragedy in Haiti. Now, we've seen a massive outreach toward the people of Haiti. And in - I have to confess, in some ways, it surprises me because it's not as though this is a part of the world that is very much on our minds the rest of the time.

Prof. PETERSON: Sure.

MARTIN: But how do you think that compassion and concern is best expressed in the tradition of Dr. King?

Prof. PETERSON: Well, first of all, I think I'm also pleasantly surprised. I would encourage folks that we need a sustained outpouring of help and assistance in order to attain justice for Haiti. It's interesting to think about Dr. King in this particular moment.

And - on the one hand, people rushing to help does honor his legacy. However, the idea that Haiti wasn't on our radar screen in the first place shows that we're not actually honoring the proactive nature of Dr. King's legacy. And, in fact, if we had probably paid a little bit more economic attention to Haiti, the infrastructure wouldn't have been so ready to crumble as a result of this particular earthquake.

MARTIN: You've written about the fact that when Dr. King turned his attention to poverty, as opposed to social justice per se on the most visible level -like the idea of equal access to public accommodation and things of that sort -that even as controversial as message was to begin with, it became even more so. Why do you think that is?

Prof. PETERSON: Well because the United States ideologically was shifting into its late capitalist mode, which is a bit more of aggressive form of capitalism, you know, more materialism, buy more, make more, sell more, bigger, better, faster. The U.S. in mid-'20s since have started to go down that track, at the point at which Dr. King really shows his hand.

Although he's showing it all along, you know, whatever affects one, directly affects all indirectly is really the premise upon which poverty in someone else's backyard is connected to my economic status. And so, philosophically, he was already there. But when it became apparent that he was actually a warrior for economic equality that very much ran, very much counter to the direction that the United States was moving both politically and economically.

MARTIN: You know, it's always a tricky business to try to predict, you know -and I'm sure, you know, you've been asked this many times - what would Dr. King do in these circumstances? That's one reason it's a loss is that he's not here to ask himself.

Prof. PETERSON: Right.

MARTIN: But one of the things that had been very much emphasized by those who fought for a national holiday to recognize Dr. King which we observe today is that the day we spent giving some form of service as opposed to, you know, shopping or sleeping or taking in the sights or whatever. Why do you think that's so important and what do you think Dr. King would have us do today?

Prof. PETERSON: Sure. That's a deep, deep question. I think the impulse to honor Dr. King's legacy through service is very, very important. Although I will challenge folk that it's really sustained service. So, one day out of the year is not enough. That's not really honoring his legacy. That's kind of getting the community service vaccination shot, and then you kind of go back to your normal life.

Service has got to be not just the action but also a mind state and that's something that's got to be sustained over the course of the year, throughout your life. It's a very, very important act, particularly people of color and people who come from certain circumstances understand that service is what helps folk who are underprivileged to rise above and transcend their own circumstances.

Now, to answer what would Dr. King do is such an extraordinary charge. I think about the Aaron McGruder, "Boondocks" episode where he re-imagines if Dr. King had been alive and how he was sort of interact with the hip-hop generation, late-capitalism America, war-aggressive, war-mongering America. And I'm convinced that Dr. King would be in some ways disappointed. But, remember, for him, disappointment is not hold your head down and be sad and walk away. Disappointment is inspiring him to take the movement to another level.

He really understood that a final victory, right? This is from own words. The final victory was an accumulation of many short-term encounters. So, he would even see President Obama's election as one of the short-term victories. We still have to continue to work and still have to continue to serve until equality and justice for all becomes a much more realizable dream.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are acknowledging Martin Luther King Day today, and we're speaking with Bucknell University professor, James Braxton Peterson. We are talking about the legacy of Martin Luther King and how this day can be thought about particularly in the realm of service and what does service mean today?

How do you respond to the dilemma that I think many people face around, you call that community service vaccination shot in a sense that lot of people have very demanding lives - they have small children to take care of. They may have elderly parents to take care of. they may just have very taxing circumstances. And then they say, you know, on the other hand, what can I do? And then when they do reach out to do something that they feel they handle in a limited way sometimes they feel that's not enough, I can only go to the soup kitchen that day, but then that's not enough.

In fact, even in his time, Martin Luther king was ridiculed by some of his concerns about integrating public transportation. Some people thought, well, that's not enough.

Prof. PETERSON: Sure. That's I - and that's a pretty pessimistic view of service. Remember, the idea around service is that it's grassroots so that if everyone does a little bit, then actually that's where the movement comes in. So, every small contribution does count. And listen, if you don't have time contributing a few dollars to particularly service-oriented organization, it's very, very important.

But I think that the challenge first - and this is for folk who are really overburdened with their own lives - is, yes, part of community service is being an outstanding, contributing citizen within your community. That's the first step, that you actually are someone who handles their own economic business, their family business and is responsible as a citizen in the United States.

But then there is that second step, which is how do you reach out and help someone else and you can do it monetarily if you have the means to do that. I think it's much better to be more hands on. But the smallest amount, once we get those contributions to service in aggregate, we'll have powerful and reverberating effects.

So if everyone helps the elderly person to cross the street or if everyone goes into a school and tries to mentor one child even if it's for one day, that's going to be very, very powerful. That's going to be extremely powerful. So, every little bit counts. We're thinking aggregate here. And we're thinking and hoping that everyone will rise to the challenge and the responsibility of service in our society.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about hope. We can't let the day go by without playing a little bit of that wonderful oration, "I Have A Dream" and let's just hear it.

(Soundbite of speech, "I Have A Dream" by Martin Luther King Jr.)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.(Civil Rights Leader, Humanitarian): I have a dream...

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. KING Jr.: ...that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. KING Jr.: I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with words of interposition and nullification.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Dr. KING Jr.: One day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

MARTIN: What's your dream now?

Prof. PETERSON: My dream is as same that, that my two children will be able to live in a nation where they'll be judged by the content of the character and not the color of their skin and we do not live there. We don't live in that nation right now.

MARTIN: And many people feel that I think - well, some people at least still feel that Barack Obama is in part the fulfillment of that dream and that hope. Do you?

Prof. PETERSON: It's a misreading of both Dr. King's vision and also of President Obama's - what he has achieved. Yes, he's achieved something extraordinary. But again, I go back to Dr. King and we need to really understand that final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters and many short-term victories. This is a huge victory.

I don't want to undermine President Barack Obama's achievement and what it means for the African-American experience. However, it is one amongst many. And we have many, many more to go. And yes, we're starting to accumulate more and more, but we haven't reached that final victory yet.

MARTIN: And do you have hope?

Prof. PETERSON: I am filled with hope. I am filled with hope. Filled with it and yet, again, even though in this dark moment where Haiti faces tragedy and even though I can acknowledge the fact that particularly where I live in Central Pennsylvania, it's very, very difficult for my children to not be judged by the color of their skin in certain situations. I have hope that we can transcend these circumstances that we will come together as small communities and, through service, make this world a better place.

MARTIN: Can I ask you what are you going to do today to observe Martin Luther King Day?

Prof. PETERSON: I am going to visit some schools. I'm going to read to some young students. I was trying to actually get into a correctional facility because that's where I normally do my service. But that's - that becomes a little bit trickier to schedule around the things that they have to do and security, and so on and so forth. So, I'll be in the public school system for this particular holiday.

In the past, students here at Bucknell have done a number of different things. They go into childcare service facilities, schools. Those aren't, you know, that's not how we define service in its totality though. Remember, you can go visit an elderly person and spend sometime with them for a day. You can serve your own immediate community by having folk over for a dinner, by working with someone that you know that's having a particular challenge.

Service has a very wide breadth in terms of how it gets defined. And really you want to think about in what way are you going to contribute to and add on to your community? And I think that's a charge that we all need to consider day in and day out.

MARTIN: James Braxton Peterson is assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University. He has lectured extensively about the life and times of Dr. King. He joined us from his office in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. PETERSON: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, three students all studying at the institutions that trained and help to shape Dr. King. We asked what has most inspired them.

Reverend JASON TURNER (Community Baptist Church, Connecticut): Change that I hope to see that I believe others are fighting for is not going to come as just a matter of helping out the world, but as something we're going to have to continuously struggle toward.

MARTIN: A new generation in a new century considers social justice. That conversation is coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.