Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a powerful voice of social justice, spearheaded several non-violent upsurges of actions opposing racial segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement and injustice. He fought for civil rights against the giant hands of racism and oppression. He not only talked the talk but at such a young age, walked the walk. I can only imagine the courage he mustered, the loneliness and pressure he felt being such a young man called to lead such a revolutionary movement, working against formidable foes. He challenged the nation to abide by its constitution — freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to protest. Thanks to his efforts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came to pass.

As an African immigrant to this country that I love so much, I proudly bellow our national anthem. Every time I sing it, I ponder on some of the unsung stanzas with the thought of what do these words mean to American citizens today? At such a perilous time in our history, the tables can be turned at any point and one must ask themselves which side of justice and the fight for freedom would one be on? 

I must admit that I took a lot for granted when I first came to the United States of America. For one, I did not exercise my right to vote, yet I griped about local and national policies — something that could have been changed with my vote. As a Black woman, I did not realize the fight that had been waged for my right to vote, my right to be treated as an equal citizen, and my right to speak up and call out discrimination based on age, race, color, religion, sex or national origin. I took all this for granted since I originate from a country that was colonized but gained independence and has long since started her healing journey. So, I was born into and enjoyed freedoms I did not suffer through. 

I did not understand that because of the color of my skin, I was considered a marginalized individual. I thought, I am in America after all. When I had my family, I involved myself in communities different from my own and came to understand more about America’s painful history. Through these interactions I was confronted by tough questions on identity from my children, and, unfortunately, came face-to-face with racial discrimination and retaliation. 

If Dr. King, undeterred by the physical and mental abuse and threats on his life, pursued his nonviolent agenda of overcoming oppression and violence with civil disobedience by speaking truth to power, what then is my role today as the struggle continues? How do I help my child write an essay on MLK without mentioning politics or racism, as per school instructions? What is it about the story of America we are so afraid of? Why can’t we have civil, honest discussions about our differing opinions versus facts? Why is a nation so great so greatly divided? 

We must get out of our comfort zones, breach the divide, and not be afraid to ruffle feathers along the way. As John Lewis would say, “Find a way to get in the way.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got in the way, he got in good trouble, necessary trouble to give me a voice in America today. It would be a disservice to both their legacies and the countless others who sacrificed themselves for me not to use it.

I do love this country and I am grateful for the opportunities that it continues to provide for me and my family. Dr. King said, “We may have all come in different ships, but we are in the same boat now.” Why then can we not see that we are a diverse group of beautiful people with different cultures, that if celebrated and protected would benefit us all? My mom always says, “If you are the only one to succeed who would you celebrate with?” We not only have to acknowledge the past, learn, grow and heal from it, but also continue our words in support of equity and inequality. 

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us remember what the National Constitution Center said, “Today, the King holiday serves multiple purposes: It honors the total legacy of King; focuses on the issue of civil rights; highlights the use of nonviolence to promote change; and calls people into public service.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for social justice, so he would unquestionably understand firsthand our obstructions in today’s ongoing struggle, evidenced by the events in the summer of 2020, but would not understand if we gave up what he fought so tirelessly for — and ultimately died for. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rests in peace now, but his spirit lives on. 

As I reflect on how I feel about the legacy of Dr. King, I leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from him:

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice” 

“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” 

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”