As reported by the NIH Record, February 4, 2011.

A Day On, Not a Day Off

King Observance Is a Call to Service

By Kate Saylor

On January 11, the NIH community took time to reflect on the life and legacy of the man known as the “drum major” of the civil rights movement. If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were alive today, he would be celebrating his 82nd birthday.

The observance featured performances by young musicians from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and a keynote address by NIH grantee Dr. Cato Laurencin, dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for health affairs at the University of Connecticut.

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins welcomed attendees and encouraged them to see the observance as a call to service throughout the year. “What are you doing for others?” he said, echoing King’s challenge. To do the work of biomedical and clinical research, Collins said one must have what King described as “a tough mind and a tender heart.”

Laurencin addressed both the progress that the United States has achieved since the dawn of the civil rights movement and the work still needed to strengthen our communities and our nation.

A day to honor King is an opportunity, he said, to reflect on the remarkable progress that black Americans have made through paths of individual and collective determination. It is also an occasion to recognize the great challenges still facing Americans. King’s legacy, he declared, signifies an ongoing duty to eliminate racial disparities.

Laurencin expressed concern over the state of emergency that disproportionately affects black youth, particularly males; statistics reveal a triad pattern of imprisonment, drug abuse and disparity in health care delivery. Recent legislation promoting fairer sentencing and improved health care access demonstrates a commitment from politicians, he said, but progress must come through widespread, multifaceted efforts.

Laurencin underscored King’s observation, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Even when it is not deliberately intended, bias leads to differences in health care access and delivery, he said. He cited an Institute of Medicine study, “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care,” but also praised last year’s passage of health care legislation and the elevation of the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities to institute status as significant steps toward healing racial health disparities. However, the situation remains “like a bridge unfinished.”

Laurencin echoed King’s hopeful reminder that one person acting courageously can make a difference: “Never underestimate the power of one.” As a participant in the Million Man March in 1995, Laurencin was among those who were asked each to hand a one-dollar bill to another bystander, who would pass the dollar to a distant collection point. He was struck by the resulting generosity, trust and cooperation demonstrated by strangers when a large amount of money was collected. Laurencin asserted that working collectively is essential to everyone because, as King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The event was sponsored by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management and its NIH Black Employment Program.