Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. : Challenging Normal

Dr. Jason Bolden

By Jason Bolden, MD, FACEP, CDP

As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, I thought it would be of benefit to look beyond King’s iconic I Have a Dream speech during the March on Washington in 1963. The recent unrest of within our American society necessitates that we look inward as a nation. January 6 strained our democracy like never before and this past summer’s protests made it clear that we do not live in a post-racial society. 

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, I was confronted by a nurse colleague discussing the resultant protests stating, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” With the horrific video of Mr. Floyd’s murder on my conscious, this comment seemed to linger in the air like a storm cloud. I told him that I for one do not want things to go back to normal. Why return to a normal that too often leaves people like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery dead in our streets? Why do we want a normal where poverty is still pervasive in our society? Why do we want a normal where women make less money than men? Why do we want a normal when it results in black and brown people dying disproportionally in our health care system?

Dr. King fought against the norms of the time with unapologetic commitment. He fought not only against segregation and overt racial tactics of the Jim Crow South, but also against poverty and for laborers. He attacked America with all its grandeur stating “… that it’s a crime for people to live in this country and work at a starvation wages.” With the accolades of the Nobel Laureate for Peace, King continued to insert his influence in boycotts, strikes, wages disputes, health care, and against injustice everywhere. He called out the hypocrisy of a nation fighting the Vietnam War that sent black men “eight thousand miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia or East Harlem.” Near the time of King’s assassination, it seemed to some that he was challenging the entire policy of the United States Government. 

Thus, it is not surprising that King had a disapproval rating of nearly 75% during the last year of his life. So how is it that King is so unanimously admired now? History did not change. Is it that we chose to see him through rose colored glasses and view him as the vehicle who irreversibly transformed America to a post racial society? A society color-blind and void of racism?  A society that distilled King’s work into a few selected words that assumed “we are free at last” and Americans are no longer “… judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character?”

No one can say what America would look like if King’s life’s work was permitted to continue beyond April 4, 1968. It is unlikely that King would have witnessed the event of the past year and felt America has reached the Mountaintop. It is more likely King would have been marching in our streets as “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King would also likely be disappointed with us in healthcare, where racial disparities persist despite his calls in 1966 of the medical community toward “direct action” to “raise the conscience of the nation” by eliminating disparities in care. 

 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that we could not afford to accept normal. Maintaining the status quo was not an option to people of color and King’s commitment to non-violence change was not easy, nor universally accepted but respected by the black community. Dr. King’s mission and vision of peace, social justice, and equality is now universally accepted, but yet fulfilled. It is with that vision we look at King fondly today and gives us the strength to look within ourselves not to return to normal but to do better.

Thanks for reading. Take a moment today to reflect how you can live up to the version of Dr. King that exists both in our minds and the version that actually existed.

Jason Bolden, MD is the ED Medical Director for Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center – Mercy in Charlotte, N.C. He was the Quality Director at Carolinas HealthCare System Steele Creek before coming to SouthPark and was named Mecklenburg Physician of the Year for 2010. He is a graduate of the Scholars Program.

Dr. Bolden grew up in the upper Midwest in Minnesota and North Dakota. He earned his undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the University of Minnesota Morris, received his Doctorate of Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine and completed his residency in Emergency Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Dr. Bolden is board certified in Emergency medicine and is a member of the AmericanCollege of Emergency Physicians.

Dr. Bolden enjoys time outside of the emergency department with his wife and two daughters. He and his family enjoy traveling and spending time outdoors swimming, hiking and playing sports. He also enjoys cooking, gardening and keeping up with his favorite hometown sports teams in Minnesota.