There is no way to know what Dr. Martin Luther King’s assessment of our progress toward racial reconciliation and healing the nation would be. I imagine he would welcome our progress and remind us of the need to do more. As we celebrate his birthday, it should be a time to reflect on his inspiring words and deeds and commit to working toward a more perfect union. I remember how excited many of us were when we received word that Dr. King’s birthday had been declared a national holiday because of the relentless commitment to the idea by many, most prominently Stevie Wonder, whose 1981 song “Happy Birthday” captivated the public’s attention and fueled a campaign that resulted in the holiday.
Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, it was first observed in 1986. At the time, I was working in the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office. Howard Golden was the borough president, and Ed Towns was the deputy borough president. I got the green light to produce a boroughwide celebration in honor of Dr. King’s holiday. We held the first event in the auditorium of New York Technical College on Jay Street. In addition to speakers, my choir from St. Paul Community Baptist Church provided the music under the direction of Eli Wilson, Jr., and we showed video clips from the PBS series Eyes on the Prize.
I will never forget that after the program, Nannette Rainone, our communications director said she had not seen or been aware of dogs and firehoses being used to punish protesters. Like many, her parents had shielded her from the ugly truth. Later, when I saw the movie A Dry White Season, based on the novel about life in South Africa, I was struck by the efforts of white Afrikaners to keep the truth about apartheid from their children. Watching the movie reminded me of Nannette’s statement. Today, we are witnessing efforts to cancel the truth about slavery by banning books and attacking critical race theory. As bad as things can get in this country today, it is terrifying to think of people in a lifetime of bondage who often were worked to death because of the color of their skin. Descendants of slave owners would like to erase that history.
While economic inequality and inequities continue, many in the Republican Party and the Supreme Court of the United States would like us to believe we are operating on a level playing field. A 2011 study by Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers found that while most Americans—black and white—believe bias against blacks has diminished significantly, a substantial number of whites believe anti-white bias has become the bigger societal problem. Let’s face it; there will always be alternative facts.
Our profession of social work still has work to do. The late Dr. Larry E. Davis, dean for nearly two decades at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, led efforts to address race and social problems, founding the Center for Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburg and publishing numerous articles and several books on the subject. Most recently, the Grand Challenges for Social Work added Eliminate Racism as a subject area co-led by Dr. Martell Teasley, vice president of academic affairs and provost at the University of Utah and president of the National Association of Social Work Deans and Directors (NADD), and Dr. Michael Spencer, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Washington School of Social Work. Social work schools have implemented various initiatives promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The 37th annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is being held today at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), a long way from the modest auditorium in which it was birthed. I have not attended many tributes. I produced a second event in 1987 at my alma mater Brooklyn Technical High School, which featured thespian F. Murray Abraham reading from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The Saint Paul Community Baptist Church choir provided music. I left the Borough President’s office shortly after. I attended one event while working for former Congressman Ed Towns in 2011. It was held at BAM and featured Secretary Hillary Clinton and Grammy Award-winning gospel artist Donnie McClurkin. I said then, “boy, have we come a long way.” The most surprising aspect was that the producer used the same run-of-show I used for the inaugural events. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.