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A History Lesson, Carved in Stone

February 27, 2020
Martin Luther King’s words inspire a new generation

Those of us who grew up in the civil rights era knew Martin Luther King Jr. as a towering figure determined to open the doors of opportunity to all. We felt both the moral clarity of his oratory and the deep pain of his death.

But as time passed and I had a family of my own, I wondered what Dr. King would mean to my children. Was his life and legacy as relevant to their generation as it was to mine?

I discovered the lasting power of Dr. King’s message during a trip I took to Washington, D.C., with my 16-year-old son, Lee, in 2011. We had traveled to the nation’s capital to attend the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on August 28, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington.

I had the honor of serving on the board of The Memorial Foundation, helping bring the vision for this monument to reality, but this was my first visit to the site since its completion.

As fate would have it, the dedication was canceled due to the threat posed by Hurricane Irene. But early that morning, Lee and I decided to stop at the monument anyway, before catching a flight home to New York.

It was just us.

We entered the memorial through its narrow entrance—designed to give visitors the feel of the struggle for civil rights—and began to walk past each of the quotations engraved on the walls that surround the statue of Dr. King.

I was awed by the beauty of the design and the peacefulness of the moment. I cried. But watching my son walk slowly around the memorial, taking time to read and absorb the meaning of the quotes, had a bigger impact. Halfway through, he too was in tears. As a mom, it’s a moment I’ll always carry with me.

I saw firsthand what it meant for a young man to read Dr. King’s words and understand why he was such a great leader.

Dr. King believed in a nation of inclusivity, where we embrace our diversity and the “great vaults of opportunity” are open to everyone.

Often it seems that today, we find all the things that divide us and fail to remember what unites us. We all have common dreams, hopes and pursuits.

Each one of us deserves the chance to reach our full human potential. Every child deserves a high-quality education, no matter where they live, their family income or the color of their skin. We all deserve access to clean water and a healthy environment.

I’m inspired by the people who continue to build a more just society for all. Particularly, as we celebrate Black History Month at the Walton Family Foundation, we recognize the value of that work every day. We see it in those supporting Black entrepreneurs in the Mississippi Delta, those creating new school options that support the unique needs of every student and those recruiting a new generation of environmental champions who reflect the communities they serve.

Black history is our history.

I think my son began to understand that in the quiet solitude that morning, at the foot of Dr. King’s statue.

Inscribed on the North Wall of the memorial is this quote:

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.

That statement, which Dr. King wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, is one of the countless quotes that inspired me to work for civil rights.

Dr. King saw that we are all bound together.

He was a leader who fought for the rights of every person, in the same way that others fought for members of my own family, who survived the Holocaust. I think Lee began to understand that history repeats itself unless people of conviction do something to intercede.

In the days and weeks after our visit to the memorial, my son and I talked about Dr. King’s unwavering optimism to achieve a dream—and how it’s up to us to continue his legacy and keep working toward that dream.

To truly open the doors of opportunity, we must make sure our children—and future generations—understand what binds us all together.

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