Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022: Let’s Get Together

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now

From “Get Together” written by Chet Powers

During the national celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. each year, I take time to read or listen to one of his speeches—and this past weekend was no exception. Reading and listening to Dr. King always grounds me. Not only was he a great orator, but he also was an observer of humanity and a great teacher. His words remind me that, despite the challenges and conflicts we face both individually and collectively, there is always a path for creating positive change in each other’s lives.

This year I read Dr. King’s “Loving Your Enemies” sermon, which he delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957. It is not one of Dr. King’s most famous speeches, but it is one his most fundamental. In it are his foundational philosophies regarding the importance of non-violent protest, deeply rooted in the Gospel (Matthew 5:44). More significantly, he highlights the importance of taking individual responsibility for creating a harmonious future, even while fighting to change inequities in the existing establishment. He explains that an essential part of advocating for social justice requires those seeking change to imagine a world in which they ultimately live in harmony with their former adversaries. It is a powerful message that resonates as much now as it did then, almost 65 years ago.

Last year at this time when I wrote about Dr. King, Americans were still reeling from the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. We were days away from the peaceful transfer of power from one President to another, and many had serious concerns about how that might go. It seemed as if the country was coming apart at the seams. In retrospect, it was a particularly difficult moment in history to process, in part because many of us were engaged in some form of isolation with first vaccinations still months away.

While deep political divisions and vitriolic propaganda remain a prominent part of the body politick, we are arguably in a different place as we celebrated MLK Day this year than we were a year ago, though sometimes it is hard to see that. Despite the recent setback from Omicron, we were able to gather in person on a number of different occasions this past year, including spending time in offices with one another. For me, those moments were an emotional reminder of how great it is work with all of you at Cowen. Those days gave me hope by providing a glimpse into a not-so-distant future when the threat of Covid-19 eventually dissipates to a point when gathering more regularly in person without fear once again becomes viable – even as we do so with a different perspective around how to maintain a healthy life balance.  

In fact, the workplace is where we most often find a more secular, mundane version of Dr. King’s post-messianic vision, in which we live and work side by side with one another, harmoniously trying to accomplish a common set of goals. Work is a place where we receive both compensatory, as well as psychic, rewards for helping one another to achieve those goals. That is why I continue to believe that gathering again in person at scale more regularly will ultimately begin a process we will eventually come to know as the Great Healing.

I’m not suggesting that all the conflict and conflagration will suddenly disappear; however, working together in person will soften some of the hard edges we each may have developed over the past few years. This is especially important in organizations like Cowen that are powered by empathy.

Dr. King was adamant that a more harmonious world will not happen without a personal commitment from each of us. In his “Loving Your Enemies” sermon, he actually gives us a rubric for how each of us can help to bring it about:

  1. Start by looking within yourself. “We must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we’ve done deep down in the past … That is why I say, begin with yourself.”
  2. You don’t have to like someone to love someone. “Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. … [but] love is greater than like. Love is understanding.”
  3. Hate systems, not people. We must help even those with whom we have the most difficulty. “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. … When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love…”
  4. Find the good in everyone. “Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. … Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.”

Thank you to Helen Avery for her article, Living the Teachings of MLK: “Love is the only way” where she noted that Dr. King’s gift was not just his soul-stirring oratory, but also his ability to put forward practical solutions such as the above rubric.

As we all continue to work hard to find the new life balance, this framework has a very practical application because we will undoubtedly be gathering in person more often in 2022. In addition to maintaining our flexibility when it comes to the vagaries of the virus, guidelines like these will help us to manage and resolve the inevitable conflicts that can occur in the workplace. For those of you who celebrated Dr. King this past weekend, I hope you had some time to reflect on his teachings. And I hope you find this particular speech to be as relevant and helpful as I did.

For those of you who celebrated Dr. King this past weekend, I hope you had some time to reflect on his teachings. And I hope you find this particular speech to be as relevant and helpful as I did.

I look forward to seeing you soon, in person.

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