By Stephanye R. Clarke
Service, strategy, action and persistence are words that come to mind when thinking of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For this reason Martin Luther King Day shouldn’t be considered just another day to simply sit at home and collect one’s holiday pay. It should be a day dedicated to service to our communities, particularly those who are marginalized/under-served; it should be a day of strategizing and outlining next steps.
Each year there are marches and services, scheduled to honor Dr. King’s legacy. Sermons, speeches and blog posts are written about him; about his message; and about his commitment to justice, fairness and freedom. Many of us laboring in the health promotion/public health/health care/health equity arenas will utilize our go-to quote from Dr. King: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Like the marches and speeches, this quote is a safe, simple statement; it’s a calm introduction to our work and it inspires no action.
The Health Equity Institute states that according to Healthy People 2020, health equity is defined as “attainment of the highest level of health for all people. Achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities.”
Achieving health equity, which I believe is the continuum of the “go-to” quote, will require a sustainable, multi-pronged approach. My personal preference of Rev. Dr. King’s many inspirational quotes that is applicable to our work is: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs reconstruction.” This quote inspires me to examine, evaluate, challenge and change the systems, policies and practices that created the inequities, resulting in disparate health, educational, and socioeconomic outcomes.
In addition to supporting universal health care access, the system of delivery of health care services must be shaken up. Possessing insurance is great, accessing health care regularly is wonderful, but when people live, play and work in conditions that are not conducive to optimal health, something is wrong. The pursuit of health equity is not meant for the faint of heart. Conversations about racism, classism and privilege are required. A system that rewards better treatment and health outcomes is needed, versus a system that rewards chronic morbidity.
Rev. Dr. King should be remembered for more than the latter portion of his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. He should be remembered as a leader who championed equity, believing that Black Americans should possess the same rights and opportunities afforded to White Americans from birth, not just from passage of legislation. He fought for economic justice—in “Where Do We Go From Here” he wrote, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
Focusing on diluted versions of who Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was does not honor him—remembering and pursuing the totality of his dream is how we honor him.
What will you do?