“Bending the Arc Toward Equity and Social Justice”: MLK Lecture by Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA

Today, Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA delivered the Martin Luther King, Jr Distinguished Lecture. It led to a long discussion between me and Sena, which is a good sign that the presentation was superb.

I noticed that the title of the lecture sounded familiar. Dr. King said something very much like it in his speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”:

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Dr. King adapted the phrase from abolitionist Theodore Parker who thought the abolition of slavery would be successful and said:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Now that is according to a Wikipedia article, which was just edited today. Call it coincidental.

Sena mentioned to a couple of persons yesterday while out picking up groceries that we were planning to observe the MLK holiday by listening to the MLK Distinguished Lecture. Both of them were store employees. One of them was a white woman who said simply that she had to work, evidently meaning she would not be participating. The other was a young Black man who looked like he was in his twenties. He gave the same answer, simply saying that he had to work. Neither gave any indication that they even knew who Dr. King was.

We both think that was astonishing. It’s incredible to think that knowledge about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would belong mainly to those in my generation and older. It’s not like cribbage, a favorite two hander card game Sena and I enjoy, but which I’ve often seen described as being a game popular mainly among older people.

It was with this thought in mind as we listened to Dr. Reede’s presentation. The history of America is full of “firsts” for minorities: first ever to attend a white college, first ever to become a physician, and so on. But from there it seems extremely difficult to trace a clear path to full access to positions of authority, influence, and power in this country for anyone who is different from the mainstream. This is not news to any of us.

But Sena and I wondered at the apparent difficulty in recruiting and retaining leaders from the wider pool of humanity: people of different races, women, the LGBTQ community. There were no pat answers. Dr. Reede wondered aloud about how and where will we get more leaders like Dr. King? Will it be through crafting more well-conceived outreach programs? I wonder about that approach if the twenty-something young Black man Sena spoke with did not even seem aware of who MLK was. And if people like him are too busy working in order to just survive, how will they ever get the time to learn another way to live? And how will they learn how to lead? We’ll need more beacons like Dr. Reede—and maybe you and me.

I remember singing in Sunday School, “This Little Light of Mine.” Leaders like Dr. Reede are beacons who show us how to carry our lights. In fact, the title of an article describing something just like that is “This Little Light.” The subtitle is “2018 Dean’s Community Service Awards celebrate service to others.” Dr. Reede herself presented the awards to the recipients, who she described as people who “don’t only talk the talk, but walk the walk.” Her closing remarks at that ceremony was a reminder:

“Service comes in many forms, and one’s contributions need not be heroic or hugely financial in scope; it is about giving of your time, your talents, making a difference, and having an impact.”

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