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.
“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.