Reflections from a “freedom baby” on MLK’s legacy, and a dream still deferred
Boston Fed's Pam Harris says recent events prove much undone in King’s work for justice, but change remains within reach
January 18, 2021
My father missed the bus to the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 because I entered the world ahead of schedule. I was delivered in a Bronx, N.Y., hospital the day before the event that featured spirited speeches by the late Congressman John Lewis, Rabbi Uri Miller, and minister and activist Martin Luther King Jr. My dad, wanted to be there with my mom to welcome me, so he opted to stay home. Since then, my family has called me their “freedom baby,” born on the cusp of great change.
Soon after my birth, new laws were passed due to the work of King and others like him to change the nation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – which passed about a week after King’s assassination – felt like evidence that the dream he shared at the march for a brighter, more equitable future could be achieved.
As his birthday approaches, I’m forced to consider his aspirations and how I can push his work forward. King spent and ultimately gave his life for what he believed in: equity, freedom, education, and democracy. He preached peace and pushed for a more justice-centered agenda through protest and process, whatever the consequences.
In my diverse middle-class neighborhood, I was mostly spared racism’s bite except for a math teacher who discouraged me from pursuing an engineering degree. But later, when my son was the target of a hate crime little more than a decade ago – he was called a racial slur and physically attacked – I started to realize racism’s prevalence.
Police brutality, healthcare disparities, and a widening wealth gap between white families and families of color remind us of the work that needs to be done. And the lingering pandemic, which disproportionately affects communities of color, exacerbates existing issues.
We are still fighting for change.
Last summer, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Barbery, and numerous others at the hands of police. Police showed up armed and in full force at many venues – stun grenades, pepper spray and batons were used against demonstrators near the White House in June. In contrast, last week’s riotous group faced relatively little resistance when they stormed the Capitol, and it has spurred controversy. Some argue that there are still two Americas.
This unequal treatment of Blacks and whites is common. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” King is right.
Working towards a more just society takes all of us, and MLK implored us to take direct action. At the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, we’re doing that. We’ve prioritized cultivating an inclusive and equitable environment that reflects the diverse communities we serve. We’ve modified our hiring processes and stepped up our efforts to find, grow, and promote diverse talent. We’ve worked to bring in a network of diverse suppliers to meet the needs of departments around the Bank.
In 2021, we’re focusing on “Collective Accountability,” to strengthen our culture of inclusion and full representation. We’re creating opportunities to have tough conversations so that we can get comfortable with challenging topics at the Bank. Our hope is that these opportunities will promote understanding.
Most of all, we are open to discovering what we might not know.
It’s important to think about what you can do to help change the world, or at least your community. Self-awareness is a great first step. You can also use your unearned privilege – whether it’s white privilege, male privilege, able-bodied privilege, straight privilege, etc. – to support equity for all. If we all do this, perhaps the words King so eloquently wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” might come true:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow."