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A Message From USHG's President, Chip Wade: MLK Day and the Enduring Power of Hope

 There is something so powerful about the awakening that comes from getting educated.

You see this thread everywhere in the civil rights movement we celebrate on this day. Malcolm X had an awakening when he went to Mecca and prayed alongside blonde, blue-eyed Muslims. RFK had an awakening when he traveled to Appalachia and witnessed the experiences of Black and white Americans living in abject poverty. 

I didn’t have that awakening growing up, because my generation wasn’t taught Black history in school. What little we did “learn” was often negative.

It wouldn’t come until my late 30s, after I came across a quote from a teenaged Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”

This was my moment of awakening. I asked myself why, after all these years, didn’t I know more about my history? Dr. King reminded me that the answer was right in front of me: I had the power to be curious. I had the power to look and to learn. 

From then on I read voraciously, educating myself on Black history in America for the first time. I learned the reality that my teachers refused to tell me: that Black history is American history. 

As a collector of rare and antiquarian books, I was fortunate to find a copy of G. F. Richings’s groundbreaking 1902 Evidence of Progress Among Colored People, an amazing registry of Black excellence  — doctors and lawyers and business owners and professors who I otherwise never would have known existed.

I discovered that the same Black Panthers my high school teachers portrayed as armed radicals did crucial work in communities across the country, from addressing food insecurity to establishing community learning centers, senior busing programs, and free clinics. 

Most of all, through this journey I learned what Dr. King meant to me: The promise of a greater society. The importance of being persistent in the face of obstacles. And the enduring power of hope. 

That hope is needed more urgently than ever before, as we face the continued challenges of the Omicron variant. I feel this acutely in my work every day as President of Union Square Hospitality Group, where our restaurants’ teams have spent the last two years as essential workers braving the pandemic. Hope means persevering in the face of great adversity, and our incredible staff has done just that.

When Dr. King died, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign — a multiracial coalition united in pursuit of economic justice. He knew that building a better world took more than one person, and that a server or a line cook could lead change just as much as a CEO. That conviction is part of the great hope Dr. King personifies.

It’s wrong to think of Black America as a monolith. But it’s my belief that collectively, we’ve been waiting for the next successor to Dr. King, the next great avatar of his enduring hope. The thing is, one single person can’t embody that alone. It takes all of us, working alongside one another, to realize his vision. We have the power to inspire each other. We have the power to educate ourselves on our shared history, and to use that knowledge to reach our potential. Awakening is in our own hands.

Every person reading this can embody the hope of Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite our city and our nation’s divisions, we can make that hope a reality by coming together. As Dr. King said, “We must live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”