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Celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Martin Luther King Jr. statue in downtown Roanoke stands before the Martin Luther King Memorial bridge as the sun sets behind it in the nearby Gainsboro Neighborhood.

The Martin Luther King Jr. statue in downtown Roanoke stands before the Martin Luther King Memorial bridge as the sun sets behind it in the nearby Gainsboro Neighborhood.
The Martin Luther King Jr. statue at the Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge in Downtown Roanoke stands as a 7-foot tall bronze statue that was designed by the husband-and-wife team of Jeffery and Anna Varilla. Photo credit: Visit Virginia's Blue Ridge.

Dear VTCSOM Community,

Tomorrow, January 15th, would have been the 93rd birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born in Atlanta in 1929.  The celebration of Dr. King’s birthday has a unique history here in Virginia.  It was recognized as a holiday at the federal level starting in 1983, and was signed into law as an official holiday by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.  In Virginia, from 1984 to 2000 Dr. King’s birthday was celebrated as part of “Lee-Jackson-King Day,” an ironic hybridization with “Lee-Jackson Day”  established in 1889 to honor the birthdays of two confederate generals who fought to defend slavery.  Governor Jim Gilmore proposed separating them in 2000, at which time Lee-Jackson Day was moved to the preceding Friday until it was eliminated in 2020.

The legacy of Dr. King’s 39 years on this earth is remarkable. He was an iconic international leader in advancing civil rights, social justice and human dignity, and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize when he received it in 1964 [N.B. the youngest now is Malala Yousafzai who received the prize in 2014 at age 17].  In November 1967, just 5 months before his assassination in Memphis, Dr. King traveled to Newcastle University (UK) to accept an honorary degree where he said,  “There are three urgent and indeed great problems that we face not only in the United States of America but all over the world today. That is the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war.” 

If Dr. King were alive today I wonder how he would appraise our progress over the past 44 years. Would he be pleased with the strides our society has made?  Would he be alarmed at the persistence of racial inequities and economic poverty in the US and the world?  How much closer would we seem to the Promised Land Dr. King spoke of seeing from the mountaintop on the day before his death?

Our core values at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine include an affirmation of our common humanity, an expectation to respect the inherent dignity and worth of each individual, and a commitment to pursue a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment so that all may thrive. Enacting these values and helping them find full expression in our lives aligns our hearts and actions in a way that honors Dr. King’s legacy.   

As we head into the weekend and Monday’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I hope you will join me in setting aside some time to reflect on the legacy we hope to create through our presence on this earth.   I realize that the size, scope and complexity of our challenges can make our individual efforts seem insignificant.   Yet I find strength and comfort in believing that - together - we can create a mountain of good for our community.  

Thank you for all you do, every day, to live our values.

With my best wishes,

Lee A. Learman, MD, PhD (he/him)
Dean, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine