As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King today, we find ourselves immersed in a world that is filled with conflict and hatred. This context drives us to seek solace in the words of Dr. King, who shines as a bright beacon of hope and inspiration. In the face of the increase in hate speech that plagues our society, particularly in the last several weeks, his teachings become even more poignant. His words and actions offer a powerful antidote to venomous language that divides and dehumanizes. Dr. King exemplified the courage to break the chains of silence and confront the injustices that plagued society, leading us towards a path of redemption and progress. Three quotes, highlighted as italicized text below, are particularly relevant at this time.
Dr. King once stated, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Dr. King’s refusal to acquiesce to persistent negativity of his time serves as a reminder for us to reject the notion that hate speech is an inevitable part of our reality. In a recent editorial Mr. Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League, notes that hate speech is not free speech as determined by the SCOTUS decision of Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 and “condemnation of people based on race, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation is inconsistent with the responsibility that goes along with the exercise of free speech…” (https://nul.org/index.php/news/hate-speech-has-no-place-college-campuses-or-anywhere-else) The impact of words affects us all, including our patients, staff, faculty, and students and thus it is critically important to be aware of how significantly what we may hear from others affects our own health and well- being but others as well. The Restorative Community Circles (https://www.med.upenn.edu/inclusion-and-diversity/) provide a means by which we may have open discourse, gain deeper understanding from each other, and build a bridge to place of healing, however we must also find a way to have open respectful discussions with each other across the entire enterprise. We must anchor ourselves before we are in a position to heal others. As Howard Thurman, well known theologian and philosopher of the 20th century once stated, “The first step toward love and away from hatred and fear, is common sharing of mutual worth and value.” (https://www.ctsnet.edu/at-this-point/howard-thurman-on-the-contagion-of-hatred-and-the-antidote-of-love-2/)
As individuals, we hold the power to shape the narrative of our society. We must not remain silent when confronted with hate speech, for silence only fertilizes its growth. The words of Dr. King’s words should reverberate within our souls: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” Let us use his words as a moral compass to counter hate speech, fostering a culture where empathy and compassion thrive. We must continue to strive to build a more inclusive culture anchored in the core values of Action for Cultural Transformation or ACT. These core values of Respect, Cultural Humility, Accountability, Empathy, and Equity provide a lodestar to achieve a culture at the system level that embraces love and compassion, building bridges to a better future.
The last quote I will highlight is one that we have repeated every year since the Office of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity launched the Health Equity Symposium to honor Dr. Martin Luther King years ago. “Of all the forms of inequity, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.” We are reminded that access to quality of healthcare is not just an issue of medical necessity, but a matter of fundamental human rights and dignity. Thus, we owe it our patients and colleagues to not be discouraged by the negative speech and actions of others but we should work together, remaining centered around ACT core values to create an inclusive and compassionate culture. This culture is critical to providing the optimal care for all of our patients. In homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us breathe life into his words, transforming them into a resounding call to action, both personally and professionally.
Reflections on the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King
Eve J. Higginbotham SM, MD, ML
Vice Dean, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity
January 15, 2024