By Laura Harding
Editor’s note: Harding is president of the nonprofit ERASE Racism, based in Syosset.
On Jan. 15, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We do so at a time when we are still battling the very issues Dr. King fought to address. This year’s celebration of Dr. King’s work and legacy comes at a time when our nation needs again to be reminded and inspired by his unwavering commitment to the pursuit of justice and equality for all.
This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day occurs as hate crimes are on the rise, and in the midst of that surge the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. president draws on Nazi rhetoric to inspire his followers. Specifically, a U.S. Department of Justice report from October revealed that hate crime incidents rose to 11,634 cases in 2022, an increase of 794. “Hate crimes rooted in race, ethnicity or ancestry remain the most common,” according to the report.
This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day occurs as we approach the 70th anniversary — on May 17 — of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional. Yet, segregation in education and housing, as well as inequitable school funding and a racial wealth homeownership gap, still persist. These are the very things that Dr. King referenced as challenges to be addressed in his 1966 speech, “The Unfinished Task.” Dr. King’s message still rings loud, as 70 years later schools and neighborhoods across America remain stubbornly segregated and under-resourced — even in New York, long considered a liberal state.
According to a 2023 ERASE Racism research report, “Empire State Inequity,” one out of every three students of color in New York attends a school district that is 90% or more students of color and inequitably funded. This is compounded by the continued use of exclusionary zoning laws to reinforce racial segregation in housing and schools and, by proxy, the inequitable school funding.
Yet, Dr. King’s work is a beacon of hope and light in what could be considered “dark times.” We were reminded of this at ERASE Racism’s 2023 Annual Benefit. There, we heard an eloquent keynote address by renowned civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who used Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to charge each person with responsibility for acting to “give all of our children a better world, a better America, an equal opportunity at the American promise of life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — and to “erase racism.” In that speech, Crump urged us to read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” saying:
“What was so profound about it [was that] most people erroneously believed that Dr. King was just talking to the clergy who were criticizing him. No, that’s not the case at all. Dr. King was talking to all of us when he wrote the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ when he said that we, as moral-minded people, have an obligation to oppose injustice when we see it. He said if we are to call ourselves good people, you can’t see evil and look the other way.
“You see, neutrality in the face of injustice is a choice. You have picked a side. And so Dr. King talked about [the fact] that we have an obligation to challenge inhumanity and challenge injustice, challenge evil when we see it. He said we have an obligation to oppose unjust laws. He said we can’t be good people and pat ourselves on the back if we see unjust laws and we don’t speak out against them.”
Dr. King was talking to all of us — not some of us — when he wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
At a time when there is too much division in America, hate crimes are rising, and we are confronted with, in Dr. King’s words, “the fierce urgency of now,” we need to see the nonviolent pursuit of justice as a unifying opportunity, a chance to come together to our collective benefit. Justice for all is what Dr. King championed. Equity is not a zero-sum game in which someone benefits at the expense of others. When the least of us has justice, we all benefit from justice.
At ERASE Racism, justice for all and equity are our continuous cry. On this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we at ERASE Racism champion justice and equity. We call on each of you to join us in achieving that — for the benefit of all.