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MLK Holiday Reflections From the SPIA Community

Jan 14 2023
Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

Last spring, I had the honor of being invited by a group of our MPA students to travel to Georgia and Alabama on a spring break policy trip, where they wanted to learn more about civil rights history, the legacy of voting rights, and the role that activists of all ages have played for generations in fighting injustices, and working towards equality in all its forms.

That trip was very impactful for me. We began in Montgomery and stood on the very corner where Rosa Parks waited for the bus ride that would ultimately trigger a national movement. We visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people and people terrorized by lynching. We traveled to Selma for the annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday and walked across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge with thousands of others as we considered the rights that John Lewis and others were fighting for nearly sixty years ago, many of which are the same rights we still advocate for today. We listened, observed, asked tough questions, and reached a deeper level of understanding of history — and of ourselves.

What undergirded so much of our experience during that trip was the influence and legacy of so many civil rights leaders, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our students left Alabama and spent several days in Atlanta — the birthplace of Dr. King — and considered the implications of his work and commitment to nonviolence, as they reflected on their own work as budding public policy practitioners. To be in the same places and spaces where so many had fought for equality — and in some cases even given their lives — was an experience I won’t soon forget.

This year, as we celebrate 40 years since Dr. King’s birthday became a federal holiday, I would challenge all of us to spend some time reflecting on all that he stood for: tolerance, equality, and justice — as well as where those qualities play a role in our own lives. The observance of MLK Day — the third Monday of January each year — is considered to be a “day on” and not a “day off.” It is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service. As Princetonians, that ties directly into our commitment to be “scholars in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

Though the MLK holiday is recognized as a campus-wide holiday, the university is hosting MLK Day events in collaboration with the Arts Council of Princeton. Programming throughout the day includes a breakfast with noted Black feminist theorist, author, and Princeton University Humanities Professor Tina Campt as the keynote speaker. Details can be found here. There is also a list of programming and community service opportunities across New Jersey, which can be found at this link.

Whatever part of the world you find yourself in today, I hope you will join me in seeking ways to honor Dr. King’s legacy by working to improve our communities, reaching out to those in need, and advocating for policies that are just, fair, and equitable. Dr. King’s ideals, his words, and his life’s work are still making a significant impact on our world and, for that, we celebrate him today.

Amaney Jamal, Dean
Princeton School of Policy and International Affairs

Pursuing Dr. King’s Call for Racial Justice and Police Accountability

In 1963, hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to watch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech, calling for a day when his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But listen closely, and you will also hear his message for a nation free of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, he said on that day, as long as a Black person “is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

Dr. King recognized that to fight racism, you must also fight police brutality. He described police departments as enforcers of a system of racial inequity. In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, he explained that Black people will never achieve equality “when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters.”

Dr. King understood that police brutality would never end without creating systems of accountability for misconduct by police, and he called for the creation of strong and independent civilian complaint review boards in places like New York City and Los Angeles to investigate instances of police brutality. Northern mayors and police commissioners didn’t like it, accusing him on the front pages of the The New York Times of “divisive” tactics and telling him that he is not welcome in their cities.

Today, the nation continues to reckon with issues of police violence and its disproportionate impact on Black people. According to analysis by both The Washington Post and researcher Samuel Sinyangwe, police killed the highest number of people on record in 2022, with Black people three times more likely to be killed than white people. Most of these killings began as a low level interaction with a police officer, like a traffic stop or a mental health check, and only 1-in-3 killings began in response to an alleged violent crime.

Racial disparities persist through every stage of the criminal legal system, including in arrests, pretrial detention, sentencing and incarceration. According to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, police officers stop and search Black individuals at rates that are higher than for any other racial and ethnic group. Pretrial detention rates are also higher for Black individuals than white, largely due to cash bail practices. And Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is roughly five times the rate of white Americans. In 12 states, more than half of the prison population is Black.

At SPIA, faculty and students are working to address these inequities and to advance Dr. King’s call for racial justice and police accountability. One example is through the Princeton Policy Advocacy Clinic, a new program that is the first-of-its-kind in the nation, where undergraduates learn how to find policy solutions for social problems and then engage in campaigns to advance those policies.

This spring, Princeton Policy Advocacy Clinic students will work with civil rights organizations and community members in New Jersey to establish independent civilian complaint review boards, as called for by Dr. King. These boards will have the authority to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by police and will be staffed by civilians with subpoena and other authorities needed to conduct independent investigations. The people of New Jersey have been calling for the creation of such boards since the 1960s, and Princeton Policy Advocacy Clinic students will work to turn these calls into reality.

The Princeton Policy Advocacy Clinic will also work to address broader issues within the criminal legal system in the United States. Clinic students will submit a report to the United Nations on the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including on issues such as solitary confinement, felony disenfranchisement, and use of force by police. They will also work with Congress on devising policy solutions to fix inequities with the juvenile justice system, such as the problem of prosecuting juveniles as adults, excessive sentences like juvenile life without parole, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Let’s celebrate Dr. King’s words from that day at the Lincoln Memorial, but let’s also remember the challenge he left for us in America:

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here…from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

Udi Ofer, John L. Weinberg Visiting Professor and Lecturer of Public and International Affairs

"Every year we take the third Monday of January off to take a deep breath–it is our first day off in the new year. However, this can’t just be a day of rest. MLK Day was established to honor the legacy of Dr. King, and his legacy and life work is just as relevant today. As a person of color in America I have my Black community members to thank for many of the rights I enjoy today. 

There is a vile injustice against Black and other marginalized communities that continues to seep into every aspect of our society. As a collective we are sometimes guilty of sitting idly by and watching the erosion of our rights. This year I am allowing myself to remember and to look toward the work it will take to keep fighting for a world where people can live without constantly being on survival mode.

We must remember that our place in the world is a product of the hard work of our communities today, and those that came before us. We must remember the foundation laid to allow us to stand and we must remember the roots that allowed us to blossom. On MLK day, I will commit to continued growth as an individual. I will commit to learning and unlearning all I have to do to continue a fight that ensued from the horrors of colonialism. 

During my first semester at SPIA, I’ve had the tremendous opportunity to meet future leaders and policymakers who put communities at the forefront of policy conversations. I’ve been in awe of my classmates, and I am constantly inspired by their vision for our world. It is with them that I hope to continue having intentional conversations about our why. It is with them that I hope to have difficult conversations about how we, as a collective, can uplift our communities across the globe. Dr. King led a harmonious movement with a melody we still enjoy, and I will use this Monday to remember this work and the work that has to happen for the sake of our society."

Anthony Solis Cruz MPA ’24

MLK day serves as a moment for me to reflect on the value of doing the right thing, no matter what, no matter how unconventional. In life we are often influenced by the fear of perception, we worry about how we will be judged if we venture from the norm. I try to allow the legacy of the reverend, as well as the women and men who stood and died in the struggle, to serve as my reminder that although I may not be well liked or easily received, I must venture to say the things that must be said and be unfazed by fear of disapproval. As policy leaders, eventually all of us will come to a crossroad. At this point, we must decide if our purpose here is to maintain the status quo or stand in its way in honor of a greater good. This holiday, remember that MLK was one the most hated men in America when he died. Though we celebrate his legacy today, his journey was not an easy one. It was because he was unwilling to be silenced that we and generations to come will remember him always. 

The struggle is far from over. Happy MLK Jr. Day!

Cydney Gardner-Brown MPA ’24

"When I think of Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr., I think about liberation. I think about the ways in which Black communities have and continue to fight for the freedom of all peoples. MLK will always be a testament of our ability to radically reimagine a world better than this — a world rooted in radical love and community care."
Sergio Rodriguez Camarena MPA ’24
"When I think of MLK, I remember an activist who pushed the tides of history by speaking truth to power — especially when it was hard to do so. He accomplished this by working with allies across ideological divides, such as marching with Rabbi Heschel in Selma. As policymakers, I hope we can embody this same ability to find strength in our differences as we work towards Justice.”
Sean Massa MPA ’24
i have a dream