The national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. is a “bittersweet moment” every year for author and journalist Jeff Johnson, who addressed an all-school audience on Monday, January 18, to kick off Loomis Chaffee’s week of programming honoring Dr. King’s life and legacy.
MLK Day marks the start of what Mr. Johnson described as an annual, six-week “season of Blackness” in the United States, a period that includes observance of Black History Month in February. While he praised the efforts to draw attention to Dr. King’s ideas and the history of Black people in America, he said that these efforts too often water down the issues and present them in a way that “makes us feel comfortable.”
Characterizing Martin Luther King Jr. through an idealized version of his “I Have A Dream” speech is what happens in the “holiday-zation” of his birthday and is a disservice, Mr. Johnson said, because it ignores the complexity of Dr. King’s philosophy regarding the need for hard choices and firm resolve to tackle racial and socio-economic injustice in the United States then and now.
Referencing the work of several authors and historians, Mr. Johnson pointed to realities in U.S. history that people are reluctant to examine in the context of honoring Dr. King’s legacy: the de-humanization of Black people to justify the powerful economic industry of slavery in the country; the pitting of rural and urban poor against each other to preserve the wealth gap and ensure that elite white men retained political, economic, and social power; and the pull of raw emotions tied to issues of race in America.
Dr. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech in August 1963, when he and his message of unity among Americans of all skin colors was highly popular, Mr. Johnson said. But as Dr. King’s ideas evolved from 1963 through the years leading up to his assassination in 1968, the civil rights leader began to speak about the need for civil disobedience, criticize the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and demand that public resources be redirected to address poverty and the lack of education and opportunity for poor people, especially Black Americans.
These ideas were less widely embraced, but Dr. King understood that there was no benefit in sanitizing the truth to make others comfortable. He believed that aggressive action and sweeping measures were needed for change, Mr. Johnson said, and Dr. King was murdered for the threat he posed to people who benefited from maintaining the status quo.
To properly honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, Mr. Johnson said, the country should summon the courage to be “aggressively honest” in examining the truth of its history and commit to ending systemic inequity. He called on Loomis students to find inspiration in the full measure of Dr. King’s message and engage in finding solutions to systemic racism.
After the convocation, students and their advisors participated in a series of group discussions about topics associated with race, inequities, and social justice. Several other activities are planned during the week, including an open P.R.I.S.M. (People Rising In Support of Multiculturalism) meeting and musical, dance, and spoken word performances honoring Dr. King.
Mr. Johnson is the author of Everything I'm Not Made Me Everything I Am: Discovering Your Personal Best, published in 2009, and is a popular and influential media personality and political activist. He has engaged with the Loomis Chaffee community in the past, most recently as a convocation speaker in January 2015. His visit was organized through the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and was made possible in part with support from Robert P. Hubbard ’47.