Written by Annette Liao, D.O., PGY-1 in Family Medicine
Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed on the 3rd Monday of each January, is a US federal holiday during which the entire nation pauses in remembrance of the civil rights figurehead who dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for civil rights in America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, but his words and accomplishments continue to inspire generations seeking justice in the US and around the world. Much like the civil rights movement, the push for the observance of a holiday honoring the reverend took many years of persistent lobbying. It wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 US states recognized the holiday.
"True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."
On March 25, 1966, at a press conference for the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), King said, "We are concerned about the constant use of federal funds to support this most notorious expression of segregation. Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.” It was this statement that linked the civil rights movement to the concept of health equity. King joined with MCHR to oppose the federally sanctioned racial segregation of hospitals in which Black patients were commonly denied access to care and given substandard treatments. He devoted himself to the study of poverty, racism, education, and housing— now known as social determinants of health— and his work has highlighted many of the ways in which health inequity parallel civil injustice.
"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."
Poor social conditions and racism are significant drivers in determining health outcomes, and disproportionally impact communities of color. Compared to white people, racial and ethnic minority groups in the US experience higher rates of illness and death across a massive spectrum of health conditions. Generations of social and economic injustice have contributed to health disparities, and continued advocacy and efforts to eliminate such barriers are required to achieve optimal health for all communities.
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience,
but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."