LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, King’s message and legacy may take on new relevance in the context of recent political division and renewed calls for racial justice.
Blanding Watson, president of the Lancaster NAACP, says, “I think what’s meaningful in terms of Dr. King’s message…was doing things peacefully in terms of protests, being vigilant for justice, Dr. King was obviously about love and unity.”
Just over a week after the storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump extremists, following a particularly fraught election season, love and unity may feel nearly unattainable. The Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County addressed the question, “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?” in their 33rd Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast on Monday.
The theme of the virtual breakfast was based on King’s final book by that title. Vanessa Philbert, CEO of CAP, says they selected the theme over the summer and were struck by how relevant it remained months later on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“This sense of, ‘What is our direction and commitment as a community?’ is still the question. Where do we go from here? And our hope is that we go towards community,” says Philbert.
Philbert says that in order to heal and create community, people should first engage in internal reflection “about our own bias, about our experiences, about how we show up in the world.” Then, she says, there is parallel external work that must be done.
“Our external work is to put words to that internal experience and create really safe spaces to say, ‘We’ve got to have some more dialogue around the realities of the constructs of this country,'” says Philbert.
“We’re still trying to pursue justice in very many ways,” says Watson. He points out racial disparities in areas like criminal justice, health, and economics — issues that have come to the forefront of public awareness with the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
In her keynote address during Monday’s CAP breakfast, speaker Heather McGhee said, “The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how vulnerable and interconnected we all are.” While equalizing in some aspects, COVID-19 has also revealed health inequalities. Black, Hispanic, and Native American people in the U.S. are disproportionately hospitalized and killed by the virus.
Watson also notes that the Lancaster NAACP is holding virtual townhalls to discuss the coronavirus vaccine, as many Black community members are distrustful of the healthcare system which has historically mistreated them.
CAP breakfast keynote speaker McGhee said, “Dr. King had a vision of a different America, of an America that was a place unseen, and yet a land that was promised to us all, where we found the balance between individual and community.”
Like Philbert, Watson says that people can honor Martin Luther King Jr. today and going forward by educating themselves on the country’s biases and its continuing systemic racism, and by engaging in dialogue about these issues. “We all have to be on the same sheet of music” in order for change to happen, says Watson.
Watson adds that people must also intentionally make changes “and not just [let] it be a conversation.”