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Martin Luther King: What is Our Dream Today?

How Do We Continue King’s Legacy Today?

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, American pastor, humanitarian, and leading activist of the Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of a motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He was to lead a peaceful protest march, striking with workers in the city. This was one just one of hundreds of stops King made as a proponent of equal rights for minorities, particularly African Americans.

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As an executive committee member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King became a national and global figure for civil rights. He based his organization’s principles on Christianity and implemented operational methods from Ghandi.

King began the Montgomery Bus Boycott on December 1, 1955, the same day Ms. Rosa Parks was arrested. During the year-long boycott, King was arrested, had his home bombed, suffered abuse, and received numerous personal threats. His vision for equality would not be deterred, however, and on December 20, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses as unconstitutional.

In 1963, King led over 200,000 people to the Lincoln Monument in Washington for a peaceful march to call for the equal rights for African Americans and minorities in America. He delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to the demonstrators, demanding equality for all men to be delivered by a just nation.

According to nobelprize.org, between the years of 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke at over twenty-five hundred events. King made himself visible wherever he saw injustice, inequality, and the passion for change. He advocated peaceful means of communication, and a higher level of moralistic thinking, capturing the attention of the world by creating a “coalition of conscience.”

As we celebrate today, 46 years later, we must honor the significant strides King and those like him made in the civil rights movement. His influence on America, and the world, is still palpable.

While King’s sacrifices and leadership resulted in more equality for African-Americans and other minorities over the past 50 years, we must also look at the racism that still exists today, and how it affects the mental health of minorities.

The face of racism has changed over the past four or five decades. Displays of obvious and violent ignorance are not as common in the U.S., though they do exist in painful spades across the globe. Instead, racism today operates on a more subtle basis. Racism is historical, cultural, institutional, and systemic.

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Numerous studies show that people who are discriminated against demonstrate symptoms similar to those who undergo trauma. And what is racism if not trauma? Being made to feel that you are less than, inferior, that you don’t belong…these are traumatic and scarring insights to adopt into anyone’s cultural – and national – identity.

People who experience racism are more prone to develop depression and anxiety. This is true for both adults and adolescents. Studies show that teens who are exposed to racism develop low self-esteem, decreased resiliency, more behavioral problems, and a lower level of overall well-being.

On top of this, we add the debilitating stigma related to mental illness. People who are subjected to racism develop problematic symptoms and are then made to feel even more inferior for such developments. The cycle of negativity and discrimination perpetuates itself.

Is the dream Martin Luther King spoke of so passionately?

Our responsibility as a nation – as societies, communities, neighbors, and as fellow humans – is to uphold King’s legacy. We must educate ourselves and others about the paralyzing effects of discrimination – of any form. We must support public policy that facilitates access to mental health services to minorities. As mental health professionals, we must advocate on behalf of the populations we serve, and become aware of our own biases and preconceived notions. We must challenge them, change them, and continue the transformation of a land that truly represents freedom and justice for all.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

-Martin Luther King

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