“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
On March 8, 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., profoundly conveyed this timeless truth during a sermon in Selma, Ala., the day after civil rights protestors were attacked and beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the day also known as “Bloody Sunday.” His sermon was a much needed rallying cry during a period of tremendous unrest when the soul of a nation was in crisis — unable to acknowledge the humanity, dignity and fundamental right of African Americans to be free from the insidious tyranny of terrorism, whether cloaked in a white hood or a law enforcement uniform. On that day, Dr. King spoke as the conscience, not just for people of color in the Jim Crow South or for the civil rights protestors who found themselves bloodied and battered for fighting the systematic disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans, but also for a country still engaged in a civil war that many thought had long ended.
I believe Dr. King was reminded that day that though the nation was, as President Abraham Lincoln said, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” ensuring that this belief was reflected in lives of every American remained just beyond his grasp and the pursuit of it would have to continue. Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s death, the pursuit of the proposition that all human beings are created equal – essentially the pursuit for justice – continues.
It continues when individuals and groups insist that all people are created equal regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity or sexual orientation. It continues when people demand that medical care should not be withheld from the sick, or food and other basic necessities from children, because they lack financial resources in the wealthiest nation in the world. And, the pursuit continues when any of us protest injustice, whether by respectfully kneeling in recognition of those who have paid the ultimate price because of unreasonable fear or by challenging systems that force others to pay a daily price in overpopulated classrooms, unsafe homes or inequitable prison sentences.
The Heinz Endowments is participating in this pursuit through our philanthropic work. We have identified the concept “Just Pittsburgh” as an aspirational vision of our region as a place where everyone is treated with fairness, dignity and respect, and all who live here have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. While we acknowledge that our nation and region are experiencing moral and ideological divisions, we believe that both significant change and progress are possible.
The Endowments, like many foundations, has embraced equity as a seminal issue that will position us to respond to the atmosphere of increasing intolerance, racism and bigotry in the region and across the country. Practically, this involves making more grants to organizations that have a deep understanding of our communities’ assets and needs. It also means seeking opportunities to amplify the voices of these communities so that they can help address structural inequities. We are building on work that focused on certain priorities, such as our former African American Men and Boys Initiative, and incorporating other issues such as gender equality and fair treatment of immigrants. We have been known for doing good work, but in this era, good work is insufficient.
The reality is that we at the Endowments, as residents of the United States and members of the world community, have little choice but to rise to the occasion and stand for equity. As Dr. King said, this is what is right, just and true – and we refuse to die; we choose to live.
Director of Equity and Social Justice