Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day was originally established in 1986, and 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the day being established as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities—the only federal holiday designated with this distinction.
According to the National Civil Rights Museum, Dr. King’s impact and contributions include “decisions, monumental actions and steadfast progressions of humanitarian rights that reach far beyond the civil rights movement.”
To honor his legacy while addressing the destructive impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic, staff members from San José State University’s Hammer Theatre Center invite the public to join Letters to Heal, a virtual gathering to write letters to healthcare workers and patients recovering from COVID-19. Registration for the event, which runs from 1-5 p.m., is available online.
Though this event is inspired by worldwide letter-writing campaigns started during the COVID-19 pandemic, it clearly references King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote while being imprisoned following non-violent demonstrations for human rights. The historic document argues that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and is considered a landmark text for the Civil Rights movement.
The goal of this free Zoom activity is to unite the Spartan community in the fight against isolation and the struggle to recover from the virus that has claimed more than 380,000 American lives to date. Data from the Center for Disease Control shows that communities of color have been especially devastated by the pandemic.
Acts of service looks different during a global pandemic, says Maria Bones, director of Patron Services at the Hammer Theatre Center. While the Hammer Theatre Center would normally be bustling with regular performances, staff have had to convert its space into a recording studio to better capture programming for an online audience. Bones says that the King holiday offers a special opportunity to serve others and promote community engagement.
“We have so few ways to be of service during the pandemic,” said Bones. “While we can’t physically gather, we do have paper and pencils. There are no masks needed when writing from home. This is our call to service.”
Participants are encouraged to drop in to any of the event’s three zoom rooms. In the main room, Hammer staff will offer examples of what other letter-writers have done and encourage participants to come up with their own ideas. A host will answer questions and share an ongoing slide deck. There will be two breakout rooms, one with quiet background music to inspire letter-writers, and another where hosts will provide resources for addressing cards and letters. The Hammer Theater is reaching out to local hospitals and retirement homes to see if they would like to receive letters. The public is invited to participate in Monday’s event by registering online.
“This outreach idea came about in our efforts to continue to engage our Hammer volunteer community in a digital capacity, and we are really excited to be able to encourage people who are either isolated due to the pandemic or on the front lines of battling the disease,” said Bones. “How can we give people a chance to gather, inspire each other and be in service?”
Building on Dr. King’s Legacy
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches on Monday, January 18, the nation continues to grapple with issues of systemic racism. These same issues, of course, are the hallmark of Dr. King’s life, legacy and impact on the civil rights movement.
Many universities have looked inward to address and identify institutional racism and are taking immediate steps—as well as developing intermediate and long-term plans—to create permanent organizational change with regard to systemic racism on their campuses. San José State University is now immersed in a systematic and strategic effort in this regard, with a focus on addressing commonly assumed practices, protocols, and knowledge designed to lead to lasting change.
Walt Jacobs, dean of San José State’s College of Social Sciences, says that it is important to recognize King as a three-dimensional leader. To build on his legacy, Jacobs says, Americans must think critically.
“It is more important than ever to remove rose colored glasses,” said Jacobs. “We need to see King clearly. He was not considered a hero in his time by the mainstream. He took complex and controversial stands, such as questioning capitalism. See how the labels used against him are being reused against today’s Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) activists. See that we are not a colorblind society, as protestors are treated differently by security forces depending on their race. See Georgia, where King was born, and where historic Senate races recently concluded. We can still dream, but dreams need coordinated collective action to become reality.”
“Dr. King devoted his life to advancing equality, social justice and economic opportunity, ” said Patience Bryant, director of Black/African-American Equity at San José State. “He understood the importance of addressing racism across multiple areas such as in the health industry, access to living wages, etc., in order for marginalized communities to succeed and grow. This past year has shown us as a nation that we still have significant work to do in this area and we really would like to honor Dr. King.”