Honoring MLK: A Call To Action

As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eighty-seventh birthday, I can’t help but think that many of the people who quote him, honor him by attending concerts and speeches in his name probably wouldn’t have liked him in life.

He is by all accounts an American hero and he was an amazing and brilliant, fallible and flawed human being.  In my opinion, the MLK that we often present is watered down and only a fragment of the one who actually lived.  Over time, America has created a fictional character who spoke of love, door mat like non-violence and color-blindness.

If you’ve ever actually spent time reading his words, you know that’s a fictional and narrow account of who Dr. King truly was.  Yes, he believed in a non-violent approach, but that approach requires courage and discipline the likes of which most of us can’t fathom.  Yes, he wanted us to love each other, but Dr. King believed love was a verb, not just a noun.  Many of us profess to love our neighbors, but the truth is we don’t even bother to know the people living on either side of us.  Though his quote, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” is often used to justify color-blindness, I don’t buy that MLK would have wanted us to be colorblind.  I believe that he would have wanted us to see each other for the fullness of who we all are and race and identity are a part of that fullness.  Like Mellody Hobson, MLK would have wanted us to be “Color Brave.”

Dr. King appealed to the best parts in all of us to do better and be better for our own sake and for the sake of others. There is still much work for us to do Cleveland.

Each year, as MLK’s birthday draws near, there are a parade of television specials, essay contests, concerts and all manner of exercises to commemorate his life and legacy — they are woefully inadequate.  Not because they aren’t the right thing to do or because they aren’t sincere and meaningful efforts, but because like only feeding the homeless at Thanksgiving— they are not enough.  What are we (yes, I count myself among you) doing the rest of the year?

MLK said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?”  Many of us can point toward volunteering, donating, mentoring and a variety of commendable exercises. We live in a county with over 5,000 non-profits, more than any other county in Ohio.

Yet in spite of all our efforts, we live in a city with a growing racial and socio-economic divide.  We live in a city where the difference in life expectancy between a resident living in Hough (64) and a resident living in Lyndhurst (81 ½) is twenty- four years. Our infant mortality rate is worse than some developing countries, too many of our youth age out of foster care each year with nowhere to go, the unemployment rate is only shrinking for some and many of our citizens do not have access to equal protection under the law.

We are living with an overwhelming number of unaddressed and ill-addressed systemic inequities and many of us are comfortable with them, some would rather claim they don’t exist or they are simply a matter of individual choices.  I disagree vehemently – I believe Dr. King would agree. In Cleveland, we have gotten relatively comfortable discussing poverty…relatively.  We still struggle to fully acknowledge the systemic challenges that make it difficult, if not impossible, to move out of poverty.  In spite of minor progress around poverty, many still avoid any discussion of race – let alone racism.

There are still racial disparities in America, in every city in this country, yes- indeed in Cleveland.  A collective unwillingness to address that head on has left us where we are – stuck.  Mired in our commitments to collude, to collectively pretend that “we have overcome.”  We have not.  Take almost any social problem – intersect it with race and it gets worse.  For example, the often quoted “79 cents for women compared to every man’s dollar” only applies to white women.  The number is 65 cents and 54 cents respectively for Black and Latina women and that’s even when you control for education and experience (had a feeling you were wondering.)

We could use this approach to examine everything from the wealth gap to police brutality.  Though racism and race often intersect with issues of poverty, they are too often conflated and need to be acknowledged as related, but sometimes separate issues.

In her article “Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale, Camara Jones states:

It is important to note that the association between socioeconomic status and race in the in the United States has its origins in discrete historical events but persists because of contemporary structural factors that perpetuate those historical injustices.  In other words, it is because of institutional racism that there is an association between socioeconomic status and race in this country.”

I assert that Dr. King would have expected us to be further along by now.  We have the collective challenge of living with multiple realities.  Last night, I had the privilege of taking in Cleveland Public Theatre’s play “Incendiaries.”  The play explores true accounts of the Hough Uprisings that took place in Cleveland during the sixties.  As I watched it unfold, I was heart-broken by the similarities between Hough and LA, between LA and Ferguson, between Ferguson and Baltimore  — between Baltimore and Cleveland?  We must live with the reality that we have come a long way and we have much further to go.

While concerts and such are fine ways to recognize Dr. King’s legacy, I believe he would expect more of us.  Dr. King said, “Our lives begin to end the day that we become silent about the things that matter.”  Many of us wallow in a state of sedentary agitation around the racial and other kinds of injustices we witness daily.  We must all raise our voices and act in those moments even when the easier thing to do is turn away.  Whether that injustice occurs within our family, in our workplace, faith space or in our community – we must be brave.  I am practicing my bravery right now – my hope for a different and better future is greater than my fear.

7 Ways to Honor Dr. King’s Legacy

  1. Educate yourself on the life and legacy of Dr. King
  2. Uncover and acknowledge your biases and actively work to dismantle them. Acknowledge your privilege and then use it strategically to help others.
  3. Build your capacity to have civil and constructive dialogues about race, racism and other forms of discrimination.
  4. Support organizations that are openly and bravely tackling inequities, doing so – not just saying so. You can do this with your time, talent or treasure.  Preferably you’ll employ all three.
  5. Name inequities when you witness them. If you decide to leave an organization or end a relationship, be open and honest about why you are doing so.
  6. Have candid and courageous conversations with your family, especially your children. Be color brave, children are not colorblind no matter how much we say so.
  7. Build meaningful connections and collaborate with others across race. Hint: Believing you know what’s best for others is not collaboration.  Collaboration grows from a place of shared power, not paternalism.

“An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Erica Merritt

Optimistic in spite of all evidence to the contrary and stubbornly committed to changing the world...for the better. Facilitator, coach, advocate and artist.

15 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Wonderful and timely post, Erica. So glad to read something both meaningful and relevant to what our community is experiencing. The statement “probably wouldn’t have liked him in life” resonated deeply. Thank you!

      • Erica, My original comment couldn’t have captured the amount of times I’ve already reconsidered and contemplated your “Call to Action” over the last couple of days. It sat with me all day yesterday, and I keep going back to the notion that these important conversations need to happen beyond this week or next month – it was what I was hoping to have happen when Instarted following She in the CLE. Maybe that’s the point of genuinely good writing, the notion that we don’t even realize immediately how the message will impact us. I appreciated the honesty and substance of your post, and I hope your seven strategies will continue to be shared and used as a starting point for many future conversations. I continue to try and find my own voice when it comes to speaking up against injustice and trying to learn the best ways to advocate for the change I’d like to see in our community and the country as a whole. Thank you again for sharing your voice and perspective here.

  • FANTASTIC piece, Erica! Informed, inspiring and instructive. The first thing I’ll do, as I focus heavily on women’s issues as a passion, is include data that with racial intersections that can more richly inform clients, companies and readers in my world. Thank you so much for this!

  • As always, thanks for your insight. I have quoted this several times already today. Especially: “7. Build meaningful connections and collaborate with others across race. Hint: Believing you know what’s best for others is not collaboration. Collaboration grows from a place of shared power, not paternalism.”

  • Erica,
    Thank you so much for this insightful essay. We need to hear this message until we get it – all of us. It reminded me of a Billboard on Carnegie Avenue around 2007 that read “Cleveland’s Racial Divide can be seen from Outer Space”. I think that is true for every part of the US.

  • Disturbing. Upsetting. Convicting yet invigorating. Let’s all print this and put it into our wallet or, better yet, post it.

    Read this again in the heat of July or that season you’re most mellow and more prone to sleep than conflict. I will remember that “We must be brave.” My “hope for a different and better future is greater” than my fear of speaking up, too.

    Those suggestions … Bang!$ Pow!$ Bam!$- that’s why you are on my “power” woman list!

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