Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. – A Commitment to Change

Photo by History HD from Unsplash.com

Yesterday our nation celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This year the federal holiday coincided with Dr. King’s actual birthday, January 15, 1929. In five years, it will be one hundred years since Dr. King was born and fifty-six years since he was killed on April 4, 1968, in Memphis TN working for labor rights for sanitation workers.

 Since his birth and death, the United States has both advanced and denied racial justice This annual celebration and the upcoming Black History Month offer great opportunities for reflections on progress, pushback, and next actions to advance a just and equitable society.

This week I offer my reflections; in the coming weeks, I and guest contributors will share our perspectives on different aspects of the fight to advance racial equity.  My intent today is to remind myself and readers of a few basic facts about race and racism in America and to strengthen our resolve to fight for racial justice.  

 Race has been a plague and divisive force in our country since its inception. 41 of the 56 men who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence of the United States were slave owners. A recent discussion of voting rights and suppression at our monthly Racial Justice Conversations reminded me of how repulsive and degrading slavery was and is.

The presenter was making the point about the prevalence of slavery among America’s founders and he referred to “chattel slavery”.  He went on to offer a definition: “the enslaving and owning of human beings and their offspring as property, able to be bought, sold, and forced to work without wages, as distinguished from other systems of forced, unpaid, or low-wage labor also considered to be slavery.”  He went on to explain that human beings were bought and sold like a lamp or kitchen table. This treatment as property led to many forms of abuse including women and young girls being raped by their owners, children stolen from their mothers, and generations being traumatized.

This basic inequity has fueled a country built on white supremacy.  We must remember that change will not be voluntary. The current fight about teaching history makes clear the self-interest that drives some white people to deny slavery and racism.

I’m reading a historical fiction book The Personal Librarian. It’s the unique and painful story of the librarian that business tycoon J. P. Morgan hired to assist him in building his collection of rare art pieces and manuscripts. Unknowingly, Morgan hired a Black woman of light skin, thinking she was white. Her father was among the first Blacks to graduate from Harvard and was an educator and civil rights activist.  When he was hired as a professor at the University of South Carolina during the early days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, he shared with his daughter his hope for racial change. Despite the obvious racism he encountered, he was able to live in a duplex next to a white professor on campus and to teach white and Black students. Sadly, his hope was squelched after a couple of years as white power resegregated the South during the reactionary Jim Crow era.

His experience reminds me that the active fight against policies that advance equity is no accident. What we now call our “culture wars” are battles about white control and sharing power. There are campaigns underway to elect politicians who want to preserve white privilege and ignore the obvious remnants of structural racism. Discussions of Jan. 6 insurrection led to questions of whether we are on the verge of another Civil War. Sadly, from my perspective, the war is ongoing. The weapons are different, but the battles are obvious if we pay attention.

The final point I’d offer about this war for equity is that it is complex and hard to sustain attention when advancing equity. As a white male, I am free to opt in or out of the fight. My life is privileged regardless of what I do or don’t do to advance racial equity. For people of color, there are hard choices about the cost and benefits of being visibly engaged in the fight. For all people, there are many competing and worthy causes that demand time and resources. Obvious causes include climate change, LGTBQ rights, disability rights, inequities in wealth, health, education, and addressing addiction.

Yet underneath and inside all these issues, structural racism is present.  Where would Dr. King and the many civil rights activists like him see progress? Where would they see reversals of progress or persistent structural racism? What commitments, courage and approaches do we need to continue to be anti-racists and make progress? Let’s celebrate Dr. King through reflection, commitment and action.


  • Tom Adams

    Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.

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  1. Tamara Copeland

    Tom, thank you for keeping this topic alive and to being one of the fighters for racial justice. To reinforce your comments about how the horrors of slavery go back to the founding fathers, I recommend the book, NEVER CAUGHT: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. These humans were property, treated like a chair with no humanity, but only value.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Tamara for reminding us all of the ugly realities of slavery. And suggesting a book that makes that foundational injustice clear and real. There are lots of ways to take action as anti-racists. I appreciate the leadership role you have played and encourage all to consider the basic qustion: What is mine to do to advance the end of racism and racial equity? Peace, Tom