Social Work Students, Help Us Continue the Work That Martin Luther King, Jr., Started
By Jeanette C. Takamura
Monday marked the 31st observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. His vision of a rights-based civil society, shared so eloquently in his riveting "I Have a Dream" speech delivered in March 1963 in our nation's capital, is as compelling as ever.
For me, there is something even bigger about this day than the commemoration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. I see it as a day to commemorate the struggle and the efforts made by the entire panoply of civil rights leaders: not only Reverend King, Jr., but also Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis (my personal hero), Andrew Young, Malcolm X, and Whitney Young, among others.
It is also an opportunity to acknowledge the Freedom Riders and countless other citizens who engaged in acts of civil disobedience, including all those who joined in the Washington, D.C., and Selma marches. They came forth because they deplored the indignities cast upon African Americans and stood up for social justice and civil rights and were seeking to right society so that all, irrespective of color, might be equally respected.
Most students at the School of Social Work may not be old enough to remember back to the time when the Voting Rights Act had yet to be enacted and when social justice and human rights for persons of color were close to nil compared to, although still very imperfect and lack, what we are working to move forward today.
Irrespective, we can benefit from learning about or reacquainting ourselves with one of the most critical periods in the history of the United States.
It is particularly important to understand this period and what it represents if you aspire to enter the social work profession. In the past year, we have seen racial confrontations in Ferguson and elsewhere, proving that we have yet to acknowledge and address the persistence of racial and ethnic differences that continue patterns of socioeconomic and other disparities in the 21st century. Much hard work remains to be done.
A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to catch one of Oprah Winfrey's shows on race. It was powerful then, and it remains powerful today. I urge you to watch the series. It spells out the injustices inflicted upon Black Americans, provides rich accounts of everyday heroes of all colors and from all walks of life who fought against racism, and also reveals the underbelly of racism and ignorance as they were then in evidence and as they continue to be expressed in more subtle and not-so-subtle forms today.
For instance, here is a video that includes footage from Oprah’s show in 1996, when she interviewed members of the Little Rock Nine about what it was like to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School in the wake of their protests demanding to be admitted to the school, an event that took place in 1957:
You can watch more of Oprah’s historical moments involving race and relations and civil rights here.
To sum up, on the occasion of commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with others within the civil rights movement, many of us who remember his “I Have a Dream" speech wish that our nation could proclaim a dream fulfilled. We wish that we had made more progress towards the more just society for which he lived and died.
If anything provides hope, it is that we social work professionals know that the torch is ours to help bear and move forward—consciously, post haste, towards a more perfect Union.
Jeanette C. Takamura is the Dean of Columbia University's School of Social Work, where she also serves as a professor.
- BLACK LIVES MATTER: Statement from the Columbia School of Social Work Community
- Ferguson and Its Implications for the Social Work Community, by Jeanette C. Takamura
- "You are today's Whitney Young": Vernon Jordan Delivers Stirring 2013 Commencement Address (selected by NPR as one of the top commencement addresses ever)
- In New Documentary, Whitney Young Speaks to Social Workers of Today (event report)