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Again, Where Do We Go From Here?

By Jonathan Romero

In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.′s assassination in 1968, Representative John Conyers introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday. It would take fifteen years to create a federal holiday in King’s honor. In 1983, then President Ronald Reagan reluctantly signed holiday legislation only after Congress passed it with an overwhelming veto-proof majority. As we celebrate King’s vision and dedication to civil rights today, it behooves us to remember this contested history.

If Dr. King were still alive today, he’d be the same age as my grandmother. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that King was healthy and breathing not too long ago. The Civil Rights movement is often presented in books, in the media and by teachers as a thing of the past. From the movie, Our Friend, Martin, about a young Black student and his white friend who travel back in time to various stages of King’s life, I learned that if King hadn’t been a catalyst for change, the two boys wouldn’t be friends and their schools would still be segregated. And I drew the conclusion that racism had ended with the end of Jim Crow. Now, looking back at King’s words, I know there is a need to think critically about the progress that has been made and the progress we still need.

Jonathan Romero, MLK Day 2013

“Where do we go from here?” King asked in 1967 at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King believed that oppressed groups having access to power – being able to possess power and use it – was fundamental to eradicating existing inequities. With this in mind, another question worth asking is “Why are we still dreaming?” That’s what I wrote on a picket sign along with a drawing of an upside-down US flag—the signal of distress for boats at sea—for last year’s MLK Day when I was a senior at Kalamazoo College. On MLK Day, we often celebrate King’s accomplishments but many of us forget or fail to take further action necessary to make his dream a reality. Although injustices may be less visible today, structural racism continues to exist. By asking this question, I wanted to provoke people to think about what actions they might take to challenge racism today.

I was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles where violence, poverty and police brutality remain rampant. In fact, I was born at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Harbor Hospital in Watts, a predominantly low-income black community in South Central. The Watts I was born into in 1991was both different from and similar to the Watts of 1965 when a six-day riot revealed undeniable racial tensions and extreme despair among Blacks. For example, as a result of this riot, authorities acknowledged what most Watts residents already knew: that there was a lack of adequate housing, proper education, and quality health care in Watts. The MLK-Harbor Hospital where I was born was built in response to the riots. Although this was intended as a positive corrective for the community, for years MLK-Harbor was witness to ongoing devastation in Watts: it hospitalized victims of gang violence, treated drug overdoses, and too many times saw the lives of community members slip away in the emergency room. After a long history of low quality health care and difficulties in the operating rooms, MLK-Harbor lost its accreditation in 2007.

On this MLK holiday, I am thinking about how MLK-Harbor gave birth to me but ultimately failed as an institution and a source of quality healthcare for Watts residents. Knowing this gives me pause. For me, this holiday offers an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve really come since King’s death. As long as inequality exists, we need to invoke King’s words and ask again – and again – where do we go from here?

Jonathan Romero is a contributing editor to Praxis Center.

3 thoughts on “Again, Where Do We Go From Here?

  1. Jonathan
    Thank you so much for your comments on, “Where Do We Go From Here, and the brilliant observations that you gave. It is crucially important that we not buy into this wrong notion that we are in a post racial society. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We must continue our demands for social justice in all spheres of struggles and follow the calls for democracy. I am sure if Dr. King were with us today, there would be a strong push to unite the many social movements under the umbrella of sister and brotherhood. He would, no doubt, find a way to continue letting us know that we can never be what we ought to be until our neighbor is what he/she ought to be.
    Ending the disease of racism has to become the work of all democratically minded people. Exposing those who claim to speak for democracy is also part of our work and a concrete way of exposing racism.

  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for being one to voice this important perspective this year. I think it’s so important for all of us to have this consciousness that even though we owe immense gratitude to the hard work and victories of the past regarding ending racism and other forms of oppression, we cannot be satisfied and get complacent, because there is still so much work to do.
    Maybe it is just the circles I run in, or having grown up some and gotten exposed to more mature points of view, but I feel like I hear more people now being aware of how much inequality and injustice still happens as a result of systemic racism today than I did growing up and being taught that the world post-MLK was now “colorblind”. I talk to people often about their desire to challenge (I like that you used that word) the systemic racism that prevails in this country and worldwide. It can often get very discouraging, so I hope it gives you courage and strength to know that you are not alone as a (young) person concerned about these issues, and wanting to do something effective to change them. For example, my housemate and I are starting a support group for young people doing (or interested in doing) social justice work to give each other strength and support continuing with our work even when it feels daunting and impossible. This includes going about our work in a way that supports, as you articulated so well “oppressed groups having access to power – being able to possess power and use it”.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and for your courage in everything you are doing.

    In solidarity,

    Maddy in Minnesota

    P.S. Miss you brother!

  3. Thank you for your story, Jonathan.

    I don’t want to make assumptions about the restructuring of MLK-Harbor or what caused it. I know, however, that we need to look beyond basic healthcare services. Yes, every community should have a hospital. Yes, we should have affordable healthcare. I wish we could see that those services should be a given!

    If we want communities to succeed we need to start paying all workers healthy wages. Then they can afford quality food, regular visits to the doctor, and plenty of other things that many Americans take for granted. I think that’s where we go from here!

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