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Editorial: MLK Day is as important as ever as we seek to keep hope alive

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MLK Day Parade

This year's MLK Day parade won't feature live performances, such as the Burke High School Marching Band (above), but a virtual parade will be held online. 

Last year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we urged everyone to recommit to his unfinished business.

Unfortunately, 2020 would make it painfully clear just how unfinished the job of securing racial justice, reconciliation and equality remains. A year ago, few could have predicted that a pandemic would claim the lives of almost 400,000 Americans — and that African Americans, American Indians and Hispanics would be more than twice as likely to become infected and perish, and also more likely to lose their jobs in the COVID-caused economic downturn.

Nor could we have predicted the fate of African Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose tragic deaths at the hand of police would shock our nation. Or how a mob urged on by a president’s false claims would storm the U.S. Capitol and kill a police officer and cause destruction, all while encountering a smaller law enforcement presence than some peaceful Black Lives Matter protests did months before.

Given all that, it would be understandable to conclude that America’s racial inequalities are doomed to get even worse. It also would be wrong.

Hope remains that most important ingredient in the recipe for our nation’s future, and Wednesday’s presidential inauguration will mark a fresh start, a chance to heal and to resume the work of forming a more perfect union. We believe such perfection is akin to what Rev. King said during his most famous speech. A more perfect union is one where citizens “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This year's annual MLK Celebration will persevere, albeit online rather than in person. The Charleston celebration, presented by the YWCA Greater Charleston with help from the city, will include a virtual parade along with Tuesday morning's MLK Business and Professional Summit in which businesswoman and philanthropist Anita Zucker will speak. In Columbia, the annual King Day at the Dome also will be held virtually to protect participants from the coronavirus.

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We’re glad to see such events commemorating Rev. King’s life and legacy, but we’re equally encouraged to see other efforts to advance his work, such as the YWCA’s Racial Equity Institute programming. Its instructors help analyze racism’s historic roots and help address institutional racism.

Along similar lines, the city of Charleston has formed its own Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation that’s expected to wrap up its work early this year with a series of recommended steps the city could take to improve equity in housing, economic empowerment, criminal justice, health care, education and history and culture. And the city of North Charleston is working with Virginia-based consultant CNA on a racial bias audit of its police department: The results are expected later this year.

There is also important work to do elsewhere on the state and local levels to improve our worst-performing public schools, which are predominantly black; to improve other law enforcement agencies’ relationship with the minority communities they serve; and to reduce health disparities, such as differing black and white infant mortality rates, that existed long before COVID-19 appeared.

We can rise to meet these challenges if we work together. If we don’t villainize one another. If we seek common ground.

Since the last MLK Day, our nation has endured one of its most difficult, challenging years. But it has survived. We should remember that past but also focus on the brighter future that lies before us as we all work together toward a more perfect union.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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