This is why King’s life, legacy, and hope still matter

Martin Luther King Jr. was instrumental in moving us forward, but much work remains to be done. I am hopeful for the future, because I believe there is more good than bad.

Maya Dena Hairston

Maya Dena Hairston is a senior at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. (Courtesy of Maya Hairston)

In observation of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., NewCORE, WHYY, and Philadelphia Media Network are presenting a public discussion, “Does Dr. King’s Life, Legacy, and Hope for America Matter?” on Jan. 15. The event is free, but registration is required. WHYY is publishing a series of essays by panelists Leslie Callahan, Charles Howard, and Maya Hairston.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words at the March on Washington for Jobs and and Freedom in 1963. King helped influence our nation with his dream of equality and equity for all. Although race relations in America have changed significantly since the 1960s, King’s life, legacy, and hope for America still significantly matter.

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There is no doubt that African-Americans are held at a disadvantage compared with white Americans. King’s aspiration that his children would be judged by their character, instead of their skin color, remains a fantasy.

Being one of the few girls of color at my historically white high school, my personal experience includes constantly having to prove that I’m smart enough. White faculty and peers immediately saw my skin color as a direct indication of unintelligence. For example, when my white peers discuss the differences between “talking white” and “talking black,they stereotypically associate talking black with broken English. My teacher would sometimes hold me and other students back from recess for “extra” help. The one thing those students and I had in common was our skin color.

The only representation of black people that I saw in my school’s curriculum was through accounts of enslavement and disenfranchisement. This lack of representation led me to have negative associations with being black. It is important to learn about slavery, but all children need to be taught the positive aspects of black history, not just the negative. This poor representation continues in the curriculum today, and I think the only way for it to change is for people to use their voice to shed light on it. King’s dream for equality significantly applies to the education system and should be taught to children everywhere.

Many Americans still ignore the injustices that people of color face and the complex structure of racism. King’s dream of achieving racial equality matters now more than ever. He preached about social justice issues, which sparked a conversation around the world. In my opinion, the only solution to improving the racial issue is to engage in conversations surrounding the topic.

There are a plethora of reasons why people avoid talking about racism. Many pretend that racism no longer exists, claiming that, because we had a black president, everyone has equal opportunities. Many people avoid the conversation as much as possible, because racism is complex, and the topic makes them uncomfortable. Some people avoid the topic of racism because they think it doesn’t affect them. However, it has become increasingly harder to ignore racism, because cell phone videos and social media are forcing Americans to witness injustices against people of color everywhere.

America has always been racist, and it still is today. Not all racists are as extreme as the Ku Klux Klan, but because of their lack of exposure to the subject, some Americans don’t even realize that they can be racist. Systemic racism is so ingrained in our society that many Americans have developed racial biases they are not even aware of.

Despite these reasons, conversation about racism must happen. We need more activists like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Colin Kaepernick, who spark conversations in Americans everywhere.

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The act of violence that ended King’s life did not halt the revolution for freedom. It marches on today in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement, which campaigns for an end to violence against African-Americans. Although such violence is not as prevalent today as in the 1960s, police brutality has become its main, recurring form.

A misinterpretation of the meaning of “Black Lives Matter” has influenced the All Lives Matter campaign. In reality, Black Lives Matter highlights black lives because those are the ones in danger. It in no way says that only black lives matter. Many in the Black Lives Matter movement view their efforts for positive change on a continuum that traces back to King. However, the fact that people still have to protest against violence toward black people shows that King’s dream still matters today.

King was instrumental in moving us forward, but there is still so much more work to be done. I am hopeful for the future, because I believe there is more good than bad in the world. I recognize the immense hatred toward people who don’t fit into society’s stereotype of normal. I am a poet, and I also enjoy public speaking. The opinions in my speeches and the passion in my poetry are fueled by the desire to counter that hatred with love.

I am hopeful for the future, because I believe in my heart that the world can create change if we simply focus on love. And maybe then we can accomplish King’s dream of a nation that judges people on the content of their hearts, instead of the color of their skin.

NewCORE and its partners are presenting 80 days of conversation events throughout Philadelphia, from Jan. 14, in remembrance of King’s birth, through April 4, in remembrance of his death. Join the official kickoff discussion, “Does Dr. King’s Life, Legacy, and Hope for America Matter?” on Jan. 15 at Philadelphia Media Network, 801 Market St., Philadelphia. The event is free, but registration is required.

Maya Dena Hairston is a senior at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Her father is African-American and her mother is Afghani and Pakistani. “Throughout my life, I have been told that I appear more African-American than Middle Eastern, resulting in my self-identification as solely black,” she says. “This naïve perception has haunted me throughout adolescence. Today, embracing my many identities has become my chief goal.”

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