Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and reflecting on his impact

by Joan Rachlin, JD, MPH, Executive Director

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to best achieve the delicate balance between ardently and adequately protecting research subjects, on the one hand, and promoting ethical and responsible research, on the other. Protecting those who participate in research is fundamentally a human rights and human dignity issue, and I thus drew a lot of inspiration from three commemorations I attended in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’d like to share a few highlights of each, since your work embodies Dr. King’s commitment to helping those who are vulnerable.

The first event featured Nobel Prize winning author and former Princeton professor, Toni Morrison. The gathering was sponsored by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law. At CRRJ, a group of law students work with CRRJ director, Margaret Burnham, to reopen and redress “cold cases” from the Jim Crow era. The Project has done remarkable work, and, after the program ended, I was privileged to meet some of the clients who had lost parents, children, siblings, or other loved ones to racially motivated violence. These murders were either never prosecuted, or prosecuted and the defendants/perpetrators found not guilty by all-white juries.

The CRRJ Project locates surviving family members, listens to their stories, and discusses with them what steps might be taken to help ease their unresolved grief, as without justice there can be no peace, and without peace, grief can be unrelenting.  Where possible, the Project prosecutes the perpetrators and brings them to justice. When legal remedies are not available, though, other paths to peace and closure are pursued. For example, some of the families wanted the death certificates of their loved ones changed to reflect the true cause of death, i.e., murder, instead of the assorted lies and misrepresentations listed on the documents by complicit coroners throughout the south. Others wanted proper tombstones, and still others wanted markers erected at the scene of the crime to serve as a constant reminder of the tragic consequences of racist violence. Most, though, simply wanted to be heard, and to then be assured that the truth of what happened would be recorded so that their loved ones would be remembered and their memories honored.

The next commemoration I attended was held at my synagogue, where Liz Walker, a noted TV anchor and much loved member of the Boston community, spoke about her work building a school for girls in the Sudan. She told of her journey from the world of journalism to the Harvard Divinity School, and then finding and pursuing the sacred work of educating girls in one of the poorest and most politically perilous parts of the world. Liz related her incredulity that a tiny band of mostly women could build and sustain a school halfway around the world. She quoted from a poem by Edward Everett Hale, noting that “we cannot do everything, but we must do something.”

Finally, I visited the Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts, where I saw a remarkable exhibit from the Peace Abbey, a now closed school and education center in Sherborn, MA. Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Father Daniel Berrigan and his family, and the Dalai Lama were among the many centerpieces of this powerful installation. But, there were also tales of a runaway cow named Emily, the peace-loving Abbey founder, Lewis Randa, and the peace curriculum that took root there. The books, documents, photos, sculpture, art, furnishings, and other archival materials there could have occupied me for days, not just hours, but one quote in particular caught my eye; it said that when making a decision,  one should always ask “does this path have a heart?”

While not directly tied to the world of research ethics, these stories echo PRIM&R’s own core values, and in particular, the value of social responsibility, reminding me that it takes the efforts of many to protect the past, present, and future citizens of the world. Check out the links when you have a moment and prepare to be inspired.

Thanks for reading!