The impact of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work and teachings transcends his own moment in history. His message of individual merit, brotherhood, nonviolence, and peaceful civil disobedience resonates as we approach Dr. King’s 92nd birthday. Cities and civic organizations across the nation are expanding observances of the holiday through virtual events to facilitate conversations that have never been more timely.
In a recent conversation hosted by the National Steinbeck Center titled “Getting History Right,” Dr. Clayborne Carson of Stanford University said: “We haven’t really answered his question: where do we go from here?” Dr. King’s meaning is illustrated by the fact that his 1967 book by that title came after Civil Rights reforms had passed, implying there was (and is) work to be done.
The job is not complete, but we can look to cities both in the past and present which are making concerted efforts not only to uphold MLK’s message but to live by it. Seaside, CA in the Monterey Bay military base area is a great historical example of a city that made immediate changes in the light of Dr. King’s message. Following the integration of the military, Seaside’s population changed drastically, not only increasing in number but also becoming more racially diverse. At that pivotal moment in the 1950s, the city reinvented itself with an ethnically integrated city council and police department.
Seaside became the first city in the country to have a Philipino American Mayor as well as having African Americans serve on the City Council. Dr. Carol McKibben of Stanford University has studied the history of Seaside and said, “They tried to embody (King’s) directive and create a model city that was based on the politics of inclusion.” Dr. King visited Seaside in 1962 in response to invitations by local civil rights activists wanting to showcase the model city.
“Dr. King argued for a beloved community, for a community that included everyone,” Dr. McKibben said. There was diverse ethnic representation in the city’s cultural and political life, but did the changes have long-term impact? When we fast-forward to today, we see re-segregation occurring in the Monterey area where certain ethnic groups are moving into specific cities. “We look at this little place and how the middle class African American people who transformed this city into a model of integration, how did that change American life? I worry that it was not enough,” said Dr. McKibben.
It remains to be seen whether it was enough, but there are still opportunities to revive conversations.
In Houston, TX, the 43rd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr Parade, hosted by the Black Heritage Society and the City of Houston, will be going virtual this time around. This year’s celebration, the theme of which is “Truth, Love, and Justice,” will still include a march of sorts on January 18, 2021. The city of Birmingham, AL, will go virtual as well with its annual Prayer Vigil as well as other events in honor of Dr. King.
In Chicago, IL, community groups offer a myriad of service opportunities on MLK Day, including a project to deliver personal protective equipment to more than 2,500 senior citizens, and a restoration project to clean up the Forest Preserves of Cook County. There is also a laptop distribution effort for students, to eliminate the digital divide, sponsored by AmeriCorps Members.
Carol McKibben would like to help cities follow in the footsteps of Seaside’s early success. “If we can make an effort to behave in ways that are more welcoming and inclusive, no matter how difficult it is to think differently, it can do some good,” Dr. McKibben said. “That was the example Seaside offered; just by virtue of inclusion things changed.”
Dr. King’s message of inclusion, of community, and of peace still rings true today. As John Steinbeck put it in his 1958 letter to Dr. King, following the stabbing that nearly killed the Reverend: “You are very valuable to our whole perplexed and anxious species…[enabling] us to survive our stupidities and our blundering.”
Stanford University is home to The Martin Luther King, Jr, Research and Education Institute and is home to the King Papers Project. The National Steinbeck Center is hosting a quarterly conversation series titled “Getting History Right.”