Since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, millions have carried on his legacy through service and activism, as well as through Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday first observed in 1986. This year, the Department of Spiritual and Religious Life sought to invoke King’s legacy in its ninth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Interfaith Service, held on Jan. 21 in Levin Ballroom. As attendees flowed in, projectors played a compilation of King’s speeches, including “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” as well as a clip of protesters singing “We Shall Overcome.” 

The event, co-sponsored by Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries and the University, was split into two parts — packing meals with Outreach Inc., an organization that combats food insecurity, and attending various educational workshops. 

One of the workshops was about housing discrimination and insecurity and was led by Julia Haynes ’20 and Devon Crittenden ’20, coordinators of the University’s branch of Habitat for Humanity. Haynes stated that shelter is a “basic human right,” elaborating that “we only see the importance of housing when we see the lack of it.” Housing insecurity, Haynes explained, is defined as being “one paycheck away from missing your rent.”

Detailing the history of housing discrimination in the United States, Haynes described the Great Migration, a mass movement of Black people from the South to Northern cities which began during the 1910s. Black people in search of jobs began to move into predominantly white neighborhoods in the North. This upset white residents, which led to the creation of housing segregation ordinances, a product of Plessy vs. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” ruling. Starting in the 1950s, “white flight” led white city dwellers to move into new suburban neighborhoods that excluded Blacks and which further increased segregation. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, but Haynes said the law was “never consistently enforced.”

Haynes explained the effects of housing insecurity on individuals’ health. She said that housing insecurity can create “physiological anxiety,” as those who live in “better houses and better neighborhoods” live longer than “those who don’t.” Haynes also described housing’s relationship with physical health, especially nutrition. In the suburbs, residents are “just a car ride away from the nearest grocery store,” whereas residents of poorer neighborhoods often live in food deserts, areas lacking grocery stores and affordable, nutritious food. People living in food deserts, Haynes said, are much more likely to eat fast food and rely entirely on convenience stores, which frequently do not carry fresh produce.

In recent years, housing insecurity has become increasingly related to class, caused by decades of racism in housing practices. The problem of gentrification, defined by Haynes as “renovating a house or district so it conforms to middle class tastes,” has brought housing insecurity to the forefront. White people are now buying and renting properties in neighborhoods that were once considered undesirable. As a result, landlords are raising prices and longtime residents who can no longer afford rent are forced to move elsewhere. 

Another workshop, hosted by Harvard Divinity School graduate student Fatema Elbakoury and Shelton Oakley Hersey of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries’ Interfaith Youth Initiative, was called “Identifying our Prejudices,” in which attendees “went beneath the surface of how prejudice and empathy are embedded in all of us,” and discussed how to unlearn these prejudices through “meaningful conversation and reflection exercises,” per the event’s pamphlet. Other workshops included discussions about homelessness and a youth workshop designed to “explore Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s views on creating a more just world,” according to the same pamphlet.

During the meal-packing segment of the event, participants packed 10,000 meals, according to an email to attendees from University Protestant Chaplain Rev. Matthew Carriker, in attempt to combat food insecurity in Middlesex County, where 8 percent of families are food insecure. The packages were intended for families, each serving four people and containing nutritious ingredients.

In a concluding speech, Kevin Peterson, founder and executive director of the New Democracy Coalition, drew on the interfaith aspect of the event, speaking of King’s friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. According to Peterson, Heschel said that “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America,” and believed their friendship was part of “the divine connection between Black and Jewish communities” fighting for “social justice [and] hope.” Heschel believed that “King reminded us of the essential obligation of giving, so that we may also individually take up the endeavor of giving as God has given to us,” Peterson said. 

Peterson asserted that many of the problems present in King’s day are still very much relevant, saying King “lived in a nation where Black people were judged primarily by the color of their skin. … That fact remains today.” 

At the end of the event, projectors played an excerpt from one of King’s speeches which epitomized his approach to advocacy: “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.”