Moving Beyond the Dreamer to See the Advocate

By Robert Phillips, President and CEO, Alluma

On Monday, January 18, 2021, Alluma will pause to join the nation in remembering and celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we pause, I will do so not in reverence of some romantic view of the Civil Rights movement, only paying attention to his soaring quotes from “I Have A Dream” while ignoring his “The Three Evils of Society” indictment of our country’s values gap. I will not be observing Dr. King’s legacy as a part of an American story about the transcendence of good over evil in which we, as a nation, were waiting for someone like Dr. King to lift the veil from our eyes to see the errors of the past 400 years.

Instead, I will be observing his legacy as a political thinker whose willingness to give voice to and fight for many of the Civil Rights movement's radical ideas about economic justice, democratic experimentation, and overhauling the constitutional order made an immeasurable contribution to the character of our country. This perspective is long forgotten in some quarters of today's America.

I will listen to Dr. King's remarkable sermon delivered on August 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C., while focusing on a powerful image of children holding hands as a way of thinking about the American project of economic and racial justice. Simultaneously, I'll also pay attention to his description of America's shame: “One hundred years [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so, we’ve come [to Washington D.C.] today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

It's time to take measure of where both of these truths fit in the broader architecture of King's thoughts around what achieving real equity means: sharing political power, uprooting political boundaries, rethinking how American federalism works, and rethinking how education works. It is critical we understand that Dr. King's perspective is part of a broader tradition of Black political thought that is grounded in a commitment to political ethics and to thinking about the values that should guide our response to inequity. This tradition of Black political thought extends back to slavery. It focuses on the values of self-respect and solidarity, avoiding hate, and a whole set of principles aimed at guiding a resolute and dignified response to unjust conditions.

It's time to take measure of where these truths fit in the broader architecture of King's thoughts around what achieving real equity means: sharing political power, uprooting political boundaries, rethinking how American federalism works, and rethinking how education works.

In his eloquent words and in the forceful, compassionate life he lived, Dr. King gave our nation an inspired and inspiring vision. He had a clear purpose for his life, and it guided how he lived and treated others. At this moment, we would all do well to learn from his powerful example of a life driven by purpose.

Though many years have passed, Dr. King's lessons remain relevant to the way we should consider conducting ourselves today. His lessons encourage honesty, kindness, and resolve in how we treat one another. They shape how we might consider the unique and often unspoken experiences and challenges of our friends, families, colleagues, fellow citizens, and the veterans and families we serve as an organization. And they reinforce the virtue of our own values at Alluma: autonomy, commitment, advocacy, respect, and equity.

“Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope,” Senator Robert F. Kennedy reminded the country in 1966. “These ripples crossing each other form a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples to build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

This year, as we remember Dr. King, let us re-dedicate ourselves not some sentimental view of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement that has become a story about unity built from the heroic sacrifice of great men and women. Rather, we should re-dedicate ourselves to discovering our individual purpose – seeing a clear path for how we can all be of service to addressing inequity, and fighting against humiliation, oppression, paternalism, economic injustice, and the denial of democratic rights. Join me in renewing our commitment to making a positive difference in the lives of people every day.

Thank you for your service to our communities as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Robert Phillips leads the strategic direction, fiscal stewardship, daily operations, and overall management of Alluma as CEO. A healthcare advocate and philanthropist, Robert joined the Board of Alluma (then Social Interest Solutions) in 2006, and became President of the Board and CEO in 2017. Follow Robert on LinkedIn and Twitter.