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The Complex Teachings Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Every year around Martin Luther King Jr. Day I see a lot of the same quotes and photos. Dr. King’s teachings boiled down to a few snapshots and buzzwords: peace, love, equality. And while he did preach all of those things, they were never quite that simple. Even his I Have A Dream speech often gets truncated and simplified. We forget that he spoke for several minutes about the specific societal challenges facing the nation and communities of color before he delivered those famous words.

More complex than a pithy quote or a quick soundbite, one of Dr. King’s defining teachings was actually about the complexity of the issues surrounding civil and human rights. He asked us to take a holistic view of the difficulties we face and to challenge simple answers given to solve complicated problems.

This is a message I remind myself of frequently in my work. As MedShare addresses humanitarian aid and health issues in medically underserved communities, it would be easy for us to solve the simple problems. This doctor doesn’t have enough gloves, so let’s give her a box of gloves. This patient can’t walk, let’s give him a wheelchair. But that doesn’t address the root of the problem. Why doesn’t she have gloves? Why does this man have a disability? Why are their local health systems unable to fill these needs? It takes long and difficult work to answer these questions. It requires us to work closely with those we serve to educate ourselves on the intricate and interwoven cultural, political, and systemic issues that face them. It requires us to find complex solutions to match complex problems.

This complexity is probably why we are still trying to solve the challenge of global healthcare inequalities more than 50 years after Dr. King spoke at a Medical Committee for Human Rights press conference.


Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.


“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.” He made this statement in 1966, at the peak of the civil rights movement. During a time when human rights violations were in their brightest spotlight, he prioritized health above all other inequalities. A man who saw incredible racial violence, injustice, and inequality knew that without access to healthcare, no one had the ability to pursue life, liberty, and especially not happiness.

A radical in his own time, Dr. King preached complex messages that forced us to look not just at the problem in front of us, but at the whole problem. Not just at what we experience personally, but at what we experience as a community. Not just what we experience as a nation, but what we experience as humanity.

Each year MedShare hosts a volunteer weekend in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. One of our volunteers this year remarked that, while many people think of it as a day off, seeing everyone together volunteering with MedShare reminded her that it is actually a day on. Her comment made me smile. While many of Dr. King’s messages were complicated and nuanced, the one she was echoing was simple: we are here to serve each other. Dr. King helped us understand that the challenges we face are multi-faceted and our problems are not easy to solve, but above all, he taught us that it is our responsibility to work together to solve them.

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