MLK and the True Radicalism of Health
MLK Day, a celebration of the famed Civil Rights leader, takes place every third Monday in January in the United States. Officially becoming a federal holiday in 1983 and granted full state recognition in all 50 states in 2000, it is a time for many of us to get a bit of a breather after the start of the New Year. We become inundated with faint reminders through social media, television, and newspapers of the work that Martin Luther King, Jr did. Even though he gave over 2500 speeches, the same apocryphal MLK “I Have A Dream’’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial, will reverberate over and over. A speech that has been co-opted by many who would likely despise MLK in his time as he was one of the most hated men and polarizing figures in America. A target of the American intelligence whose leadership called him “the most notorious liars in America”, a (unfairly charged) communist threat, a “dangerous Negro”, and even encouraged MLK to kill himself.
These tributes, much like the reduction of the complexities of what MLK stood for and who criticized him, does us all a great disservice. MLK led with his conscience that was often considered counter cultural at the time, even if he morally proved to be correct. He was akin to Courbet of French Realism, constantly illuminating the struggle of the lower class that others wanted to ignore through his ”craft” of societal change, protest, and strategic non-violence. MLK stumped for a completely improved world, one that strove not just for racial equality but economic, gender, and health too amongst it all. He did it unabashedly and with such fervor that led, in his “I Have A Dream’’ diatribe, an impassioned plea for us to continue to do the work
“Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
He also realized the work possessed a strong economic component, not just racial which was perhaps his egregious error against the power structure, attempting to solidify the belief that health was directly tied to the economic prosperity of Black Americans.
MLK provides a road map for grounding health and wellness in its radical roots — as a human right, not a superfluous afterthought that is purchased through capital and provides a halo of clout. This is a needed current discussion, as the ever ballooning industry that is worth more than the global fashion industry, is moving away from this call to action MLK put forth when talking to the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Chicago in 1965
“…Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death”
MLK saw the premise of health, and working towards wellness, as the revolutionary concept it deserves to be treated as.
He reminds us that self-care is more than just bubble baths and random supplements. With his birthday marked as a national day of service, it truly is a collective and communal endeavor. An opportunity for individuals to go into your neighborhood to volunteer, connect, and realize that existence is bigger than just oneself. To return back to the radical belief that health should be attainable for all because quite literally these discrepancies result in death.
Not just by saying wellness is being democratized because an expensive wearable might have the ability to tell those that can afford it if they have COVID before a diagnosis. Instead we should change the social fabric in which we exist so those most impacted by COVID, or any other hardship for that matter, can actually survive if they need to stay home from work
Statistics rarely change people’s minds and they are often just warped to fit the cognitive position that someone wants to believe anyway if not just fully ignored.
Relinquish the “White moderate” stance that MLK warned us about that today is now bigger than race but instead the mindset, the nonchalant attitude, to ignore the issues present to maintain the economic order that buoys the wellness industry. Let’s take inspiration from MLK, to carry on the revolution he so eloquently positioned to do the work necessary to change health for the better and not just to pad pockets.
Approach this as a challenge, both on an individual level but also the industries we exist in. As cultural mavens, stakeholders, and decision makers, we can change the way people think about their personal health and the greater communal implications. MLK understood the power of the media, of public opinion, and saw “for better or for worse, you are opinion-makers in the community and it is important that you remain aware of the power which is potential in your vocation.” While he was addressing TV and Radio announcers here he might as well be talking to anyone with a social media account who can easily share their sentiments with an audience. What you say matters and what you work towards even more.
“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
So what’s the move? What do we do?