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To honor MLK, we must realize the ideals we aspire to

Today, as we prepare to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. amidst the shock and anguish of last week’s events, I can’t help but think even more deeply about what he expressed 58 years ago as he called for justice from a Birmingham jail cell. “[W]hen you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters … when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

The violent extremists who swarmed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, including bands of those proudly identifying as white supremacists, carried forward this legacy of oppression, assaulting the processes and values that undergird our representative democracy, which aspires to enshrine equal justice under the law. As shocking as this atrocity was to many, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the racism and violence so brazenly on display are not something alien nor an aberration. We cannot say it is “not who we are.” Inequality and racism, both subtle and overt, have been with us throughout the 245 years of our republic. The framers of our Constitution themselves failed to live up to the ideals they conceived and espoused.

Like other Black, brown and indigenous people, Martin Luther King Jr. was well aware of this all-too American truth. Yet having seen the very worst of humanity and of this country, he continued to believe that something better was possible, that the ideals enshrined in our Constitution could be made real. He dared to dream.

Just a few months after his letter from Birmingham, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he inspired generations of dreamers to join him in the struggle to advance the right of all people to be treated with dignity and equality, leading to changes in policy and culture, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These policies set the course that enables us today — as a multicultural and multiracial community of learners, scholars and healers — to uncover, examine and wrestle with our fraught history and to reckon with our truths.

As this period of pandemic and political turmoil has made all too clear, that dream of “liberation from the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” is yet to be realized. And the “fierce urgency of now” is again upon us.

King reminds us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But, this does not happen without our effort. The work of creating that bend lies with us. We create it through our actions. At the UW, in the weeks and months ahead, we will be taking a number of actions including, but not limited to, de-emphasizing the use of armed police to deal with nonviolent conflict or mental health crises, working to make our undergraduate diversity requirement more robust, recruiting and better supporting a more diverse faculty, and working to reduce health inequities as we envision and create more culturally competent and equitable systems of care. There is much work to be done, and this is just a start.

I hope we will use this coming Monday’s holiday to reflect upon and draw inspiration from the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. as you challenge yourself to play your part. And I ask that you join in making it a day of service and engagement — a day on, rather than a day off.