"I can't believe you're working on Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day," a friend said to me.
I smiled, and reply:
"Then you don't understand what MLK means to me.
I'm working because my presence in advertising represents everything people like Dr. King and many others marched, were beaten, were jailed and killed for - our right to be equal.
My presence in advertising is my way of continuing the fight. I owe those brave souls my best.
Too often, I’ve been the only Black in the creative at an agency - advertising still struggles with diversity. I endure the comments, slights and bigotry to prove that we belong in advertising. I don't march or picket - I show up to work. I push myself to be the freaking best I can be. I study my craft - hard. I write and write to become the best writer I can be. I take crap assignments and turn them into award winning work.
I work on MLK Day because at most agencies, my people still cannot show up for work.
This is how I honor the brave souls from the Civil Rights movement. I prove the bigots and racists wrong. I thrive despite them trying to make me fail. Every day that I walk through the door, I'm marching in the shadow of those brave souls who suffered so much so that I could be equal.
I don't have to face dogs and billy clubs and water hoses and people cursing at or spitting on me. I face a different kind of insidiousness. I face smiling faces and kind words that cloak dark and evil thoughts. My presence in advertising battles stereotypes and lies. Their bigotry doesn’t take a day off, so I won’t either.
My presence is nothing big, but it is the best that I can do. It is my way of honoring those who came before me. I respect others who celebrate or honor him differently but for me, I’ve got to work.
No. I don't take MLK day off.”
I’m not smiling. I’m crying. Not tears of pain but tears of rage.
How do I explain this rage to you? How can I help you to know what it is like to wake up every day with the hope that things will be better while facing a reality that says otherwise? What words will let you feel the weight of being Black in America, in advertising? What can I say that explains what it is like to have to be “better” to be considered “less”?
I can’t. And that realization cuts me to my core.
I wasn’t going to write this but Sunday, January 15th I posted a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote on Facebook, and a friend reported the post as inappropriate. My account was locked for 2 hours because of this friend. This person knows me, and didn’t have the courage or respect to talk to me and explain what the issue was. Then my friend asked me about working on MLK Day, and I had to speak.
The connection between the two events isn’t a straight line, but please understand that this desire to control my voice is part of the problem with advertising. Agencies will hold MLK celebrations or post quotes, but when it comes to really talking about diversity or even acting on the issue – silence. Most agencies can’t find their voice.
Considering the subject of the offending quote, it was kind of funny that this person would try to block it:
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He tweets @dereklwalker