Remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bonnie Willis's picture

On occasion, I have heard well-intentioned people say they believe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted the world to be color-blind.

While I can appreciate the sentiment, I tend to disagree with it. Rather than being blind to our differences we can learn to appreciate our God-given diversity.

The trick is not to judge and evaluate individuals because of their race. In the words of Dr. King, we want to be judged, “not by the color of our skin, but the content of our character.”

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, last week, I went to my son’s class as a parent volunteer and led a brief lesson regarding who he was and the great things he did. It was surreal to stand before this beautiful mix of races and nationalities and see how Dr. King’s dream was being realized right before my eyes. However, it was awkward explaining how less than 70 years ago there were laws within our country that would not have allowed these children to learn together.

Then one child asked me, when did Dr. King die? I shared with him that he died on April 4, 1968. We did the math together, and we discovered that Dr. King died at the tender age of 39 — my current age.

And once again, I was filled with awe and amazement at how he galvanized a nation around the simple idea that people of all races are equal and should be treated equally under the law. He united the efforts of millions towards changing the culture of racism that was rampant in America. And in so doing, he changed America’s consciousness, challenged, and inspired the world to consider how they treat their citizens.

Now, in remembrance of Dr. King’s legacy, I will typically read transcripts and watch videos and documentaries of his life, and my husband and I are beginning to share this with our young children.

Interestingly, as I review some of these sources, I recognize that while Dr. King used the plight of African Americans in this country as a platform for racial equality, his ultimate goal was not just to have African Americans be a prosperous people. Rather, it was to have all races be afforded the same constitutional and legal rights, and pursue opportunities of livelihood that this nation offers.

However, for many, the remembrance of Dr. King stirs up feelings of bitterness or resentment of the past. Seeing disproportional representation of African Americans in disaffected conditions and occupational positions seems to validate in their minds that we live in a racially unequal society.

For these individuals, a way to right this wrong may be to take some of the wealth that was accumulated over the years by those in racially-privileged positions and give it to those who have been disenfranchised.

I do recognize and acknowledge that in the past, there may have been unfair laws, like the Jim Crow laws, and mortgage lending practices that put African Americans at a disadvantage when competing equally in the marketplace.

And although we may still see racial disparities, these disparities are not necessarily due to current laws or policies that are inherently racially biased, because the same laws apply equally to all people.

Although it might feel far more gratifying to fight and demand socio-economic equality “by any means necessary,” in the end this philosophy only deepens the wounds and furthers the divide that exists. It prevents us from moving on to, or slows the healing process. My personal response to socio-economic inequity is simply two-fold.

First, I encourage others to focus on building their professional skills set and determine to work harder than anyone else. In today’s global economy, quality and excellence in one’s work will outshine antiquated notions of bigotry.

My second response is to be gracious in my treatment of others regardless of their race. As it states in scripture, I do not believe in, “holding the son accountable for the sins of the father.”

And as Dr. King himself taught us, we do not change the hearts of men through violence and anger. Rather, we change the hearts of men through peace and love.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]