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In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

January 2023

As we reflect on MLK Day celebrations, we often refer to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s well-known “I Have a Dream” speech. We like to hold onto the eloquent phrase commanding us not to judge people by the “color of their skin but by the content of their character” and commend ourselves on the strides we have made towards what we, perhaps mistakenly, identify as his core message. Some go so far as to interpret his speech as a statement of achievement rather than as an aspiration.

As we commemorate him, it is important to understand the full breadth of who Dr. King was and what he advocated for, far beyond one sentence or speech. His name conjures images of non-violent, peaceful resistance, but he was also passionately committed to economic justice and real freedom: opportunity, access, security and safety, and equal participation in the political process. Dr. King himself fought daily for “radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo.” Ultimately, Dr. King called upon white Americans to come to terms with their own racist ideas and acknowledge the inherent racial inequalities in our society.

On this day of remembrance, let us recognize what we have accomplished and simultaneously reflect on how we can continue to press forward. Let us layer Dr. King’s teachings and writings onto our reality, resist complacency, and reflect upon how he would have measured our progress.

Dr. King might have been disappointed. He might have noted that we do not seek agreement or understanding. He may have seen some working harder to accentuate differences rather than searching for common ground. He might have observed people not guided by faith but instead those who weaponize religion. He might have even said that we have undone his teachings, resorted to violence as a means of communication, stunted gains in civil liberties for people of color, and lost sight of his wish for future generations.

How might we realign with his legacy and celebrate our differences rather than our fears? It’s going to require hard work, determination, and courage to realize Dr. King’s vision for our society, a place where we all are valued by the content of our character. We can begin by asking ourselves, “What calls me to service?”, “What do I need to learn?”, and “Who will help to hold me accountable?” We can be intentional in our relationships as we work to give voice to those whose voices are not currently heard. We can challenge ourselves to heed Dr. King’s call to action. In this way, we will honor his memory today and everyday.