Reflecting on Dr. King's Legacy and the Field of Public Health

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Enrique W. Neblett Jr., PhD

Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education and Associate Director of the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center

Martin Luther King Jr. famously claimed that health inequity “is the most shocking and the most inhumane” of all forms of inequality. Dr. King also knew that undoing that inequity, or unraveling the many negative effects of racism on human health, was no easy task.

To learn more about Dr. King’s ongoing impact on human health, we asked Enrique Neblett, professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, to share how Dr. King’s legacy informs and inspires his own work in the fields of public health and the social sciences.

How has Dr. King’s legacy influenced the field of public health?

Dr. King’s legacy in equity has undoubtedly influenced the field of public health. It is widely reported that at a Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights held in Chicago in March 1955, Dr. King declared: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane.” In a 1961 annual report printed in the Nation entitled “Equality Now: The President Has the Power,” King called attention to “a considerable amount of discrimination” with regard to health and hospitalization. He noted that the federal government granted funds to states for the construction of hospitals and for mental health, maternal and child-care services, and for programs designed to control tuberculosis, cancer, and heart disease; yet, in many instances, “southern Negroes [were] denied access to the programs and services.” In this same report, King called attention to the problem of segregation and housing discrimination and suggested changes in federal housing policy. Consistent with what we might today describe as an antiracist stance, King influenced the field of public health by being among the voices to suggest and champion specific changes in programs and policies that could reduce racial inequity in social determinants of health and health more broadly.

How does Dr. King's work inspire your approach to public health education, research, and work?

Dr. King’s work inspires my approach to conducting public health research through its expansion of my research program to include not only detecting, defining, and understanding health disparities, but also reducing disparities through the development of programs and interventions and through influence on policy to promote health equity. In my newest line of work, I conduct community based participatory research (CBPR), a collaborative, partnership approach that equitably involves community partners and researchers and in which all partners contribute expertise and share decision making and ownership (Israel et al., 2013). Dr. King’s contributions also offer numerous psychological insights, which are critical to framing and promoting health equity and advancing public health research, practice, and scholarship.

What specific messages from Dr. King’s life are particularly meaningful to you? How do they influence your work?

As a trained psychologist and social scientist, one of my favorite messages and addresses by Dr. King is his address at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention in Washington DC in 1967. This speech resonates with me for several reasons. First, Dr. King named racism as a central ill of American society and called on social scientists to be courageous, name and document racism, and speak truth to power to tackle the harmful effects of racism on Black Americans. 

Second, Dr. King called attention to the multi-faceted, systemic, and structural nature of racism, noting that because of its complexity, eradicating racism won’t be easy. Says King: “the Negro after 350 years of handicaps, mired in an intricate network of contemporary barriers, (cannot) be ushered into equality and superficial changes.” In other words, we’ve got work to do to promote long-lasting change. 

Third, King normalizes Black behavior that society often pathologizes as an appropriate response to societal conditions, and he implicates societal policies, and not Black people, as the problem. On urban riots, and borrowing from Hugo, King states: “If a soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” King goes on to say that “the policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty.” Here, King is an antiracist, indirectly assailing policy as the culprit behind inequity. King makes the case that Negro crimes are “derivative crimes” that are born of greater crimes of society. He adds: “When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law”. Here, King upends well-ingrained, yet problematic, modes of thinking that blame Black individuals and not the social determinants with which they are inextricably linked. 

Fourth, Dr. King is a genuine leader and a man of principle. He asserts that he is “not a consensus speaker” and that he “(does) not seek to determine what is right and wrong by taking a [Gallup] poll to determine majority opinion.” King continues: “On some positions cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?!' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But conscience must ask the question, 'Is it right?!' And there comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular. But one must take it because it is right.” I find this excerpt particularly resonant in light of recent national events at the Capitol, but it resonates with me as a public health scholar, because I am reminded that my opinions and positions may not always be popular, nor should that be the goal. 

Finally, Dr. King unapologetically rejects racism in all its forms: “There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation.” And despite calling social scientists to task, Dr. King ends, even in the face of adversity, with hope: “I have not lost hope.” In light of syndemic levels of stress experienced by many Black Americans in the past year, in the form of COVID-19 disparities, disproportionate grief and loss, and anti-Black police violence, among others, hope is what we need. 

The theme of this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium is "Where Do We Go From Here," referring to the next steps we must take toward equity in health and beyond. How do you answer the question: Where do we go from here?

Last June, I wrote that “statements, quotations, and hashtags regarding anti-Black racism ... are important for messaging, but cannot, and should not, be the end game.” Rather, eradicating anti-Black racism will require the execution of concrete, specific and measurable actions that lead to lasting systemic and structural change. I think Dr. King would agree. In his Equality Now report in the Nation (1961) on the state of the civil rights movement, he wrote: “Thousands of courageous students, sitting peacefully at lunch counters, can do more to arouse the administration to positive action than all of the verbal and written commentaries on governmental laxity put together.” While commentaries can play an important role, I would answer the question “where do we go from here?” with a call for courageous action and, perhaps even more importantly, changes to programs, policies and practices that are linked with specific inequities between racial groups. What are specific policies, programs and practices that promote racial inequity in our immediate, proximal, local, and national contexts? What new policies, programs, and practices can we name and actualize to replace the problematic and inequitable ones? In his APA address, Dr. King called it hypocrisy “to talk of saving the new generation—to make it the generation of hope—while consigning it to unemployment and provoking it to violent alternatives.” In addition to having hope, we’ve got to make changes that will matter for generations to come.