As we commemorate what would have been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 91st birthday this coming Monday, we are being reminded of the fragility of the social fiber of our country, as well as our democracy. For many of us, the images from our nation’s capital earlier this month – including gallows, nooses and the Confederate flag – have shaken our faith in the stability of our institutions, and the notion of equality. Political unrest, compounded by the continued pursuit of reform and action against racial injustice and systemic racism, and a pandemic that has taken a heavy toll nationwide --but in particular on communities of color -- has led some to feel a sense of hopelessness. However, in times like this it is especially important for us to look to the past for lessons that may inform our future, and to keep hope alive.

With this in mind, we asked several of our STAARS members to share what MLK Day means to them, from three distinct perspectives. We asked senior counsel Glenn Mahone to share his experience growing up in during the Civil Rights era. We also asked associates Jalen Brown and Taylor Grant for their take on the influence of Dr. King’s legacy on their generation, some 60 years later. To conclude, we asked partner Katy Basile to provide an ally’s perspective of Dr. King’s impact.

We’d also like to invite you to listen to Dr. King’s speeches and music inspired by the contributions and sacrifices made by Dr. King and other champions for civil rights, courtesy of Spotify.

We hope that these stories, speeches, and music will inspire you and strengthen the resolve within each of us to do our part to ensure that all that of our values, individually and as a firm, are upheld, and the dream of Dr. King is one day fulfilled.

Glenn Mahone, Sr. Counsel (Pittsburgh)

 Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation primarily in the southern United States; however, less virulent strains could be found in the northern states. Mention of Jim Crow often conjures up the “Colored Only” signage used in the southern states that prescribed and limited accommodations for African Americans. But Jim Crow laws were much more pervasive and pernicious than simple signage. Virtually all African Americans of my vintage (75) who were raised in the south lived with Jim Crow’s institutional indignity on a daily basis. The civil rights movement in the mid-1960s removed much of the overt and often violent expressions of Jim Crow laws, but subtle and not so subtle vestiges remain to this day. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we honor today, rose to international prominence when he engineered and led the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama sparked after Rosa Parks, an African American, refused to give up her seat to a white man, as the Jim Crow custom required.

I am not from what has been called the Deep South. I was born in Eastern Kentucky coal mine country, and my family relocated to Pittsburgh when I was about five years old and was not aware of Kentucky’s Jim Crow segregationist practices. Later, of course, I came to know Jim Crow as the oppressor with a thousand faces, impacting African American prospects and aspirations great and small. Jim Crow’s natural home was the southern United States, referred to as “down South”, but Jim Crow had and continues to have a career “up South”, north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Whether up or down South, the essence of Jim Crow policies and practices have “otherized” African Americans for more than 400 years.

I have seen and been the beneficiary of the great achievements at the cost of unspeakable sacrifices by Dr. King and many others. I could not have lived the life that I have lived but for the impact of Dr. King whose life was cut short in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. He was 39; I was 22 and had grown up seeing him on television and in the newspapers. His work was inspirational, live and in living color. I was privileged to hear him speak at Penn State in 1966. One can only wonder what he might have been able to accomplish had the Gods given him more time. But who can question fate in these matters. The principles of equality to which all persons are entitled and for which Dr. King so tenaciously fought have served as the foundation on which African Americans and others have been able to advance their claims to the American Dream – even to this very day. To be sure, the Martin Luther King holiday is one for all Americans; it is not a Black holiday. It is an opportunity for all Americans to pause and acknowledge through the ritual of memory and common tradition his vision that reached and included all people. Indeed, he made America and the world a better place. The changes he and his supporters were able to bring about through civil rights legislation (prohibiting employment discrimination, protecting voter rights and fair housing) were transformative for my generation. Before those landmark achievements, African Americans could be effectively shut out of the American dream virtually without recourse.

Dr. King’s activities between 1963, when I graduated from high school, and his death in meaningful ways contextualize the circumstances of daily life in Black America during those times, and make crystal clear why civil action then, and now, was and is a constant imperative. Like my contemporaries, I have experienced the unsettling blatant and subtle forces of Jim Crow oppression. I could recite a list of “living while black” episodes, but I need only refer you to your local newspaper for regular and almost always disturbing accounts of race-based trauma experienced by the African American community.

I could not have asked for a truer touchstone to guide my life than Dr. King’s example. More than perhaps any African American leader, Dr. King represents the embodiment of the path to achieve the component parts of the American dream for African Americans. In one of his final speeches he said that “he might not get there with us, but we as a people would get to the promised land.” We honor those words and his legacy that on this day continue to inform us of the value of the principles for which he lived and died.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Jalen Brown, Associate (Chicago)

One of my favorite MLK quotes is: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” One of the ways this has affected my life is through MLK’s effort and other civil rights leaders efforts, for education equality. My mom was one of the first African Americans to graduate from her high school in a predominantly white neighborhood. This happened due to my Mom’s church and pro bono lawyers suing the high school for not sending busses to pick up the African-American students who wished to attend that high school.

Decades later when I was in high school, my mom brought me to a reunion at her old Church to celebrate the students who were part of that first graduating class. The attorney who performed the pro bono legal work for the Church attended the reunion and I had an opportunity to speak with him and told him I had an interest in law. We kept in contact throughout the years and he allowed me to shadow his law firm when I was in high school for a week. The next summer, he offered me a job to work in the office and as a messenger. This opportunity helped grow my interest in law and provided me with the motivation to pursue this career. I continued to work at this firm and transitioned into the role of a law clerk as I entered law school and stayed there until I became a summer associate at Reed Smith.

This is the impact MLK has had on my life 60-years later. MLK strived to truly make the American Dream a dream for ALL and to have justice and equality for ALL. This allowed my Mom to receive the education she deserved and pushed her to go to college. This in turn provided opportunities for the next generation and her children that makes my Grandma tear up to this day. I am forever reminded and thankful for MLK’s impact on my life.