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A Letter to Dr. King
By Dr. Mary-Frances Winters
If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was alive today, what would he think about the progress we’ve made towards equality and inclusion? In recognition of Martin Luther King Day, Linkage’s Institute for Leading Diversity & Inclusion™ faculty member and D&I thought leader Dr. Mary-Frances Winters explores this question and more in the following open letter.—Ed.
Dear Dr. King;
As we celebrated your 84th birthday on January 15th, I thought it befitting that I write you a letter to report on our progress in actualizing your dream.
I won’t give you an assessment of all 44 years since your untimely death. What I think is most important is where are we now? In 1967 you made your last, and some say most radical, address as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was entitled: Where Do We Go From Here? In response to this question, you stated, “We must recognize where we are now.” I am going to answer where we are now based on your answers in 1967 to ‘where do we go from here’?
First, you said we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being Black. Where are we now?
I think we have made some monumental progress of historic proportions. We elected a Black president, Barack Hussein Obama, in 2008 and re-elected him in 2012. Like you, he is a visionary and transformational leader, tackling humongous problems like health care, wars in the Middle East (we are still in conflict with the Middle East, I know that you would be gravely disappointed that we have not yet found ways to live peaceably)…but our new President is really trying to use non-violent and peaceful methods of working out our differences. As a matter of fact, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after only one year in office!
Some would argue that with his election and re-election, we now live in a post-racial society, but unfortunately even with the new optimism, there have been more threats on President Obama’s life than any other president. There are still egregious oppressive practices like racial profiling, hate crimes, and a 400% rise in nooses being portrayed in the workplace.
While most Black people would probably say we are not ashamed of being Black, a 2008 replication of Dr. Kenneth’s Clark’s “Black doll/white doll” experiment conducted in 1939 (you may remember this), showed that Black children still preferred the white doll, calling it “good and pretty”. They called the Black doll “bad and ugly”.
When it comes to an unassailable and majestic sense of values, I am afraid I don’t have great news to report. Black on Black crime still looms large in our communities, greed supersedes ethics in too many instances, and an illegal underground economic system of drug dealing is a way of life for too many of our young people.
In some of our urban areas, up to 50% of Black and Latino students drop out of high school. Can you believe that there is an overall dropout rate of 30% in this country?
Secondly, you said that we must discover how to organize our strength in terms of economic and political power. Where are we now? The economic news is not very good either. Blacks have the lowest median income of all groups at $32,000 versus $54,000 for whites. Unemployment rates for Blacks are double that of whites and 27.4% of all Black households live in poverty compared to 9.9% of white households.
However, I want to paint a balanced economic picture and there is a brighter side. Over the last two decades, there has been a 54% rise in the number of Black households with incomes of $100,000 or greater.
Thirdly, you said that we must reaffirm our commitment to non-violence. Where are we now? I’m ashamed to report that we have failed miserably in finding non-violent ways to settle our disputes. Catastrophic violence is commonplace today. Acts of terrorism here and abroad make headline news daily. On September 11, 2001 there was a horrific attack by an extremist Muslim group right here on American soil. Thousands of innocent people were killed. In addition, acts of terrorism have hit France, Spain, England, Egypt, Nigeria, and Pakistan…. As I write this, we are still in conflict with Iraq and Afghanistan. The conflict between Israel and Palestine has intensified…marked by much bloodshed and the loss of innocent lives.
I know, I know…you wrote about our conflicts with the Middle East and urged us to find non-violent ways to live peaceably during the 1967 war. You learned from Gandhi the very specific steps for nonviolent resistance. It is not a physically aggressive approach but it is resistance and carries with it a willingness to accept suffering (but we don’t like to suffer)…it seeks to win the understanding of the opponent rather than the defeat (we seem to prefer win-lose)…the non-violent method is used against forces of evil, rather than individuals… avoids not only physical violence, but violence of the spirit…at the center of non-violence is the spirit of love. I am afraid we are not doing very well on this front.
Dr. King, you were a catalyst for the integration of public education. You commented on the slow pace of desegregation following the 1954 Supreme Court decision. You said that the phrase “all deliberate speed” which was a part of the decree did not mean that another century should be allowed to unfold before Negro children were released from the narrow pigeonhole of the segregated school.
Sadly, I must report that our schools are just as segregated today with poor educational outcomes for students of color. Several years ago researchers from Harvard released a study entitled: A multiracial society with segregated schools: Are we losing the dream? The study reported that white students attend schools where 80% of the student body is white. The data also showed the emergence of a substantial group of American schools that are all students of color…the researchers coined them “apartheid schools”. I know you must be disappointed but I also know that you would still be hopeful, for you once said: We must accept finite disappointment but we must never lose infinite hope. And there is hope.
We are a global society now. Technology has all but eliminated barriers for us to work, live, and play across borders. Many US companies have substantial offices in countries Like India, China and Brazil. We can no longer just consider the issues for us here in the U.S. and I know that you would agree because you said it…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. There are still significant injustices as you well remember throughout the world including poverty of epic proportions, lack of food and basic shelter and atrocities against women around the world including sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings, and mass rapes.
I have shared just a snippet of the current state of affairs. Quite frankly, I am too ashamed to go further. I think you get the picture. Of course we have a plethora of good people doing great things to advance equality in our world. And there has been significant progress on many fronts. Apartheid was ended, the Berlin wall has come down, human rights is a global issue which many diligently work towards, reparations were paid to European Holocaust survivors. Blacks, Latinos, and women hold political and business positions that were only a dream when you were alive.
While there are pockets of good news and even great news to report…overall I think I have to give us a failing grade on achieving your dream. You concluded your address in 1967 telling us that we should lead with Divine Dissatisfaction. It is not enough to just be dissatisfied. We have to act on our dissatisfaction and never giving up your dream for a peaceful, inclusive world. If I have an opportunity to write to you again, maybe our celebration of your life will be more than ceremonies, more than proclamations, more than rituals, and boulevards in your name. I carry the dream that the next report will proclaim the victory!
Yours in the struggle,
Dr. Mary-Frances Winters is a leading diversity and inclusion practitioner and thought leader. She is the founder and CEO of The Winters Group, Inc., a diversity and inclusion firm specializing in diversity and inclusion assessment, education and strategic planning. Dr. Winters is the author of three books: Only Wet Babies Like Change: Workplace Wisdom for Baby Boomers; Inclusion Starts with I; and CEOs Who Get It.
Click here to find out more about Linkage’s Institute for Leading Diversity & Inclusion.
Women in Leadership Institute™
NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
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