In the Public Interest

I watched the funeral service for Coretta Scott King with a bittersweet mixture of sadness, pride and concern. Mrs. King's death is the third in recent months-compounded by the passing of Rosa Parks and Betty Friedan-that marks our loss of powerful forces against discrimination. I believe these events and the thoughts and feelings they provoke are important for us, as psychologists, to consider in terms of our work, our profession and how we contribute to the greater good.

As an African-American woman who grew up in the South and experienced the civil rights movement, I am deeply saddened by the loss of these leaders. I well recall the struggle to change the way things were in the 1960s and before.

I feel a sense of pride that, although Martin was not laid in state at the Georgia State house, his wife became the first woman and ethnic minority to have that honor. This represents great progress on one hand. However, on the other, as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recently noted, "If we doubt discrimination still exists, we have only to look at New Orleans."

Committed against oppression

Betty Friedan's work, "The Feminine Mystique," first published in the United States in 1963, provided a context for women to begin to think of their lives with more possibility. Each of these women made monumental sacrifices as they committed their lives to the elimination of oppression in all its forms.

My initial feelings of grief for Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King recalled for me a memory of my former mentor, Carolyn Payton, and her words of wisdom on the subject of loss: "Grief about death is not always about who died, but also about whom we are left with."

Who will carry on the work?

In this context, who will carry the weight of the struggle for human rights and social justice? Clearly, the answer to this question is that we cannot and should not look to one or even a few leaders for solutions to our most pervasive social problems. If we come to believe, as I do, that the responsibility lies with all of us, the next question is, "Are we up to the task?"

In considering the momentous contributions made by those who were moved by a sense of personal responsibility to fight injustice and work for equality, I wonder whether I myself can summon such drive and commitment. What will be said about the contributions I have made after I'm gone? Could it be said that I had strong beliefs and worked diligently in support of their realization?

Certainly not everyone can rise to the level of public acclaim bestowed upon those such as Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks or Betty Friedan, but there are contributions I can make in keeping with the ideals they strove to achieve.

Let's make a difference

It is important to remember that even those who achieved greatness and public acknowledgement because of their fight for equality did not begin their work with the goal of becoming famous or changing the world. They saw injustice not as something that had to be accepted, but a condition to fight against and, ultimately, to eliminate.

Their passion and drive came from such a belief, and today they are honored for their achievements and influence in spreading the message of empowerment to those who are discriminated against. Is it possible for us to reach the same level of commitment in fighting for what we believe is right?

We live in critical times. Differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, ability status, age, religion and socioeconomic status often result in intergroup conflict that ravages lives.

We are plagued by mental health problems, substance abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, work stress and inadequate health care, including mental health care, to name only a few of the myriad societal problems for which psychology has much to offer.

Our colleagues are conducting research and practicing in ways that effectively respond to the needs in our society. Let's recommit ourselves to making a difference. Public Interest needs you.