MLK Day Reflection

Being part of the 1982 march to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday helped shape Washington STEM CEO, Lynne Varner. She reflects on how Dr. King's call for justice reverberates in our work today.


Lynne K. Varner,

Dr. King’s birthday brings back powerful memories for me. That we now celebrate the most well-known and respected civil rights leader on the planet with a federal holiday is the culmination of a hard-won effort that I witnessed personally. Growing up minutes from Washington, D.C., I had a front-row seat to people using their Constitutional right to protest. Running errands downtown with my parents or friends, I routinely passed crowds pulsing with righteous anger on one side of a street and a phalanx of police standing silently on the opposite side.

But it took the growing demand to honor Dr. King with a federal holiday to draw me out of my youthful insouciance and into standing up for something I believed in. On the day of the National Holiday March in 1982 my friends and I joined the huge crowd. Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, stood regally in the front, accompanied by Rev. Jesse Jackson and other celebrities and civil rights leaders. I was miles away in the rear, huddled in layers against the winter chill, linked arm in arm with people, walking and singing Stevie Wonder’s glorious ode to Dr. King, “Happy Birthday.” I had never felt so empowered, so full of purpose.

Fast-forward a few decades to this week when I heard actress Angela Bassett, receiving an honorary Academy Award, quote Dr. King: “We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” Being part of the history-making effort to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday shaped and made me.

Washington STEM’s work challenging public education systems is part of the collective effort to make good on Dr. King’s dreams of equity and opportunity. I hope that today’s me is as brave as my younger self, the one who strutted past rows of police officers singing at the top of her lungs. Goodness knows there is much to be brave about. The Supreme Court’s rejection of affirmative action in higher education and the push-back against efforts to make classrooms, offices, and other open spaces more diverse, equitable and inclusive, come to mind.

When you think of Dr. King’s legacy, what is calling you to be brave?

MLK sculpture in Washington DC