This morning, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend a truly unique conference session. The topic was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to the APA, at the 1967 convention. In addition to a riveting session, this topic was an extraordinary lens to view psychology’s struggle and promise of unification.
It began with Dr. Nathaniel Granger, a psychologist and Martin Luther King scholar (here he is re-enacting the I Have a Dream speech), giving a re-enactment of a shortened version of the speech. I began to try to tweet it, but quickly rested my fingers to listen and appreciate as Dr. Granger was able to perfectly capture the cadence of Dr. King. It was so uncanny I half expected to hear crackles of an old recording. You can read the speech yourself here at the King Center or here on the APA website.
Here are two paragraphs, right at the beginning of the speech that drive home to me both the genius and the tragic prescience of Dr. King, in elucidating issues that social scientists still struggle with:
For social scientists, the opportunity to serve in a life-giving purpose is a humanist challenge of rare distinction. Negroes too are eager for a rendezvous with truth and discovery. We are aware that social scientists, unlike some of their colleagues in the physical sciences, have been spared the grim feelings of guilt that attended the invention of nuclear weapons of destruction. Social scientists, in the main, are fortunate to be able to extirpate evil, not to invent it.
If the Negro needs social sciences for direction and for self-understanding, the white society is in even more urgent need. White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject. The present crisis arises because although it is historically imperative that our society take the next step to equality, we find ourselves psychologically and socially imprisoned. All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions — the Negro himself.
This is still painfully true — especially with respect to the thinking of white America. Dr. King goes on to assert that black Americans want social scientists to “tell it like it is” — to expose the psychological and social reality of a people long oppressed. But yet, he argues convincingly,
It was the Negro who educated the nation by dramatizing the evils through nonviolent protest. The social scientist played little or no role in disclosing truth.
This surely has changed, but has it changed enough? Dr. King’s speech, and Dr. Granger’s re-enactment, as well as the compelling presentations by Dr. Joseph White and Dr. Jennifer Selig immediately following, left me with a new framing for the science of psychology. To address social justice, we first must carefully document injustice. Social science need not lead the way in changing an unequal world, but at the very least, we can tell it like it is, documenting that we still have a long way to go to fulfill Dr. King’s admonition nearly 50 years ago.
King left psychologists at the end of that speech, urging us to apply what he called a great psychological word — “maladjustment” — into a hopeful, productive use. He (rightly) notes that some things we should never “adjust” to, like segregation, bigotry, systemic discrimination. I carry that with me even today. Since injustice persists, we should not become “adjusted” to injustice, but should instead use our discomfort to address injustice, or at least document it in our role as social scientists.