An advocate’s reflection on MLK Day

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An advocate’s reflection on MLK Day

What can we learn today from looking at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life?

When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, he not only had a dream of equality, but a dream of freedom. “Free at last, free at last,” King declared at the end of his famous speech, evoking an African American spiritual in hopes of a future without discrimination and bondage. Though we have made significant progress in the decades since King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we are not yet able to declare freedom for all.

When you think of human trafficking and modern-day slavery, your mind might travel to developing countries, illicit brothels, or child soldiers in war-torn nations, but do you ever think about it happening in the United States? Because the U.S. is a developed country and not everyone has learned to recognize human trafficking as what it is, many are unaware that it exists so close to them. Despite the criminalization of human trafficking in the United States, the country currently has over 400,000 people estimated to be living in slavery, and human trafficking has been reported in all 50 states.

Rose, a fourteen-year-old girl from Cameroon, used to be one of those 400,000 trapped in a trafficking situation. When a family in the United States claimed they would put Rose through school in exchange for household work, the deal appeared to be perfect. “Everything seemed normal until they reached Rose’s new home in America,” Kevin Bales, author of Ending Slavery, writes. “Then the trap closed.”

The promise of schooling that the host family had offered her was merely bait, and Rose was soon overwhelmed with housework, sometimes working from 6 a.m. to midnight. A world away from her family with all means of contact ripped from her, Rose was trapped in a human trafficking situation for two-and-a-half years. Her life quickly became “a blur of pain, exhaustion, work, abuse, and fear,” right in the middle of suburban America.

“Despite the criminalization of human trafficking in the United States, the country currently has over 400,000 people estimated to be living in slavery, and human trafficking has been reported in all 50 states.”

We sometimes believe that human trafficking only takes place in countries where freedom isn’t an inherent right, but Rose wasn’t forcibly addicted to drugs and trapped in a brothel nor was she violently kidnapped. Instead, Rose’s entrapment took place in a conventional home in Washington D.C., the capital of the “land of the free,” and the very place where King had made his speech about freedom decades earlier.

King believed that slavery in America was perpetuated not merely by human badness but also by human blindness.” If Americans choose to ignore modern slavery and the signs of human trafficking, our nation can never be truly free. If we want to honor King and show reverence for his unwavering activism and dedication, we must be active participants in ending human trafficking. Spreading awareness of modern slavery, advocating for anti-trafficking legislation, donating to anti-trafficking organizations, and encouraging everyone to know the signs of human trafficking and how to report it are the most effective ways we can combat modern slavery.  

“Slavery in America was perpetuated not merely by human badness but also by human blindness.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would be celebrating his 91st birthday. It can be easy for us to think that segregation and the Civil Rights era took place centuries ago, but really, it’s only been 57-years since King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The people who protested King’s right to equality are still around today, as are those who seek profit from slave labor. Still, King left us an undeniable legacy. Though he is not around to remind us of his dream to be “free at last,” there are plenty of activists who keep his memory alive.

At the 2018 Women’s March on Washington, Grammy-nominated artist, Halsey, declared that “we are not free until all of us are free,” evoking the same theme of freedom that King shared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 55-years prior. The United States is far from a perfect, egalitarian nation, but Americans will never stop marching, advocating, and fighting to make it a fairer place with the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. in our hearts.

*While we do not want to equate modern-day slavery and human trafficking to the violent racial oppression African Americans experienced during the Civil Rights Movement, we wanted to celebrate Dr. King’s efforts to ensure freedom for all. It is because of Dr. King’s work within the Civil Rights Movement that we are able to make progress in the anti-trafficking movement today. We acknowledge that these movements, while aligned in message, each carry their own unique experiences, conflicts, and backgrounds.

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