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Observing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

While I try to spend some time reflecting on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings every year at this time, in the wake of the violence at the Capitol building, it seems especially relevant.

As someone who grew up in a family involved in the Civil Rights Movement in New York City in the ’60s and ’70s and as a sociologist who has spent much of my career engaged in and researching social justice movements, I often think about the ideas that Dr. King put forth in his many pastoral speeches. Dr. King’s words and actions still resonate with so many of us not only in the U.S., but also around the globe, who are working to make the world more just and more equitable.

One sermon that stands out in my mind is “The Drum Major Instinct,” which Dr. King delivered to his congregation from his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on February 4, 1968. In this important sermon, Dr. King discusses, among other things, his wider purpose and how he would like to be remembered. While he discusses that all of us have an inclination to crave attention and to lead from the front, like a drum major, that the most important calling is to serve others.

He said, “I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.”

That work continues, here on campus, in our communities, and elsewhere.

As we mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in this landscape, it is easy to become discouraged. The sheer amount of social justice work ahead of us can seem insurmountable. The pandemic has put a spotlight on inequities and exacerbated them. Those who are suffering the most are in marginalized communities. The symbols of hate that were displayed during the insurrection in Washington, D.C. made it clear that there is a persistent and growing faction of Americans driven by anger and bigotry against the black and Jewish communities, among other minority groups.

Therefore, it is not enough to passively remember. We must become part of Dr. King’s legacy. We must serve others. We must focus on healing. We must dedicate ourselves to speaking out when we witness injustice. We must commit to taking part in civic engagement and civil discourse, no matter how difficult.

However, we should also take a moment to recognize glimmers of hope. The day before the violence in Washington, D.C., the state of Georgia voted to send Reverend Raphael Warnock to the United States Senate. Reverend Warnock, who serves as the pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King gave his Drum Major sermon, will be the first black senator from Georgia. Regardless of your political beliefs, I hope you will be as inspired as I am by this powerful image.

This year most of us will not be on campus for Monday, January 18. For those who are looking for a meaningful way of spending the day, I encourage you to observe the holiday by taking part in a day of service.

I look forward to many opportunities to serve with you and continue the conversation.