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Dr. Martin Luther King's Influence on Today's World

"... whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward."

“If you can't fly, then run. If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday, I was privileged to take part in the event March on! Hudson in Hudson, New York. This event largely focused on recognizing the importance of the rights of women, included a march down the main street of this historic Hudson Valley town, ending at a park on the river, where various inspirational speakers, including our congressional representative, Antonio Delgado, reminded us of how important it is to be proactive and engaged as citizens in a democracy such as ours.

The temperatures were well below freezing and a giant winter storm was brewing to the west. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, we could barely feel our fingers or our toes. Even though the conditions were less than pleasant, we were bonded by a common purpose.

In short, we share a common belief that civic engagement matters. And that we, the people, need to be actively engaged in the democratic process at all times. And we embrace the First Amendment, which provides us the right to publicly express our concerns regarding this nation and our government.

A highlight of this event took place when the founder of Move Forward New York (an activist group that focuses on engaging in the civic process to effect positive change in our region), Debra Clinton, spoke about the importance of speaking out and taking action when it comes to advancing human rights. Debra's words added a chill to the event, focusing on the importance of activism in bringing about equality for girls and women—for the benefit of our daughters and granddaughters—for the benefit of our shared future.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, Debra ended with Dr. King's quote which starts this essay and which connects explicitly with the mission of Move Forward New York. Debra ended with an activists' battle cry. There is no time for complacency. As engaged citizens who are privileged to live in a democracy such as ours, there is but one option, and that is to move forward.

Dr. King's Legacy and the Modern Activist Movement

Dr. King was, famously, a visionary who was ahead of his time. Dr. King had every single attribute needed to be a charismatic and influential leader. Coming from a religious background, he genuinely encouraged others to inhibit their own selfish interests and to focus on the interests of the greater good. He bonded people together, getting people to see themselves as part of the same shared struggle. He took steps to organize people into groups, understanding the importance of the power of numbers. And he famously—and tragically—gave his life for the cause.

In his famous treatise on human evolution, renowned evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (2007) makes the case that the ability for humans to organize and cooperate beyond lines of kinship sits at the core of what distinguishes Homo sapiens from other hominid species. The greatest leaders of human groups are experts at facilitating such cooperation. Dr. Martin Luther King was such a leader. And organizers and activists today who are looking to effect change would be wise to take a page from Dr. King's book.

Our Work Is Still Cut Out for Us

I wish I could say that the injustices that Dr. King worked so hard to fight have been adequately addressed. But, unfortunately, they have not. Social equality is, in fact, a constant issue in such a diverse nation as ours. Here are some statistics to underscore this point:

  • While African Americans comprise only 12% of the US population, the number of African American males who are incarcerated in US prisons greatly exceeds the number of white males in prison.1

  • The homicide rate in the US for African Americans aged 18-34 is nine times higher than it is for whites.2

  • The life expectancy for African Americans in the US is substantially lower than the life expectancy for whites.2

  • The number of women who hold seats in the US House of Congress is 123. In spite of this number being an all-time record high, in perspective, it is actually dismal: Only 23% of House seats are held by women, who comprise more than 50% of the population.3

  • The president of the United States has been famously accused of sexual harassment by more than a dozen women over the course of many years.4

And this all is, by the way, the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues connected with social inequality in the United States in 2019. Bottom Line As a behavioral scientist and as someone who makes a point to engage in the civic and democratic process, I have to say that Dr. King's vision of true social equality in the United States is still quite far off in the distance. In his lifetime, Dr. King provided a model for effective social activism. He showed us how to call problems out and how to organize to bring about positive change. And he reminded us that democracy and freedom are never free. And that is up to the citizens of a democracy to take part in the process to help advance the greater good. Dr. King told us that moving forward is not an option. It is, rather, an obligation. Thank you to Dr. Martin Luther King, activist sine qua non, for inspiring this post—and for changing the world for the better. Acknowledgment: Claps to the primary organizer of March On! Hudson, Gianni Ortiz, founder of Indivisible CD 19 NY, for all your efforts in getting people to engage with the democratic process. Your work matters.

References Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. 1 2 3 4


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