Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2021 finds the world in a remarkable time. Now in the darkest days of a pandemic, the United States is also in the midst of political transition and social unrest, balanced between hope and outrage. Courier spoke about this day and time with Elliott L. Ferguson II, president and CEO of Destination DC, the organization that promotes tourism in Washington, D.C.
This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day seems more significant than ever. How do you see the U.S. approaching it, and what does it mean to you?
I think this year, the day will truly serve as a day of reflection and hope—and putting in perspective where America is. Last summer and the events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol have shown us that, now more than ever, the divide still exists between the Black community and the White community. It’s unavoidable to look at the timing of welcoming the first Black female vice president to hold the office at the same location where we saw one of the largest discrepancies in how Americans are policed.
I’m a legacy member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the same fraternity as Dr. King. It’s an honor to have been surrounded by high caliber men much of my adult life, and it’s something that I take great pride in.
For people who want to learn about Black history and civil rights, Washington D.C. is loaded with opportunities. Are there sites or experiences you especially recommend?
Yes, the influence of African American culture is undeniable as you make your way through the District.
Some suggestions of places to check out: Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and follow Cultural Tourism DC’s African American Heritage Trail, to name a few. There are so many spots in DC, you could easily build a full multi-day itinerary filled only with history from the Civil War through the civil rights movement.
How does exploring history and heritage help a person get a more complete picture of the United States?
Being able to take in all types of history, culture, and heritage in Washington, D.C.—mainly for free—is an experience that helps inform and enlighten visitors. It’s one thing to read about a historic moment from the past, but in Washington, D.C., you can physically see it in front of you, like the actual Greensboro Lunch Counter at the National Museum of American History, where four Black college students staged a sit-in in 1960.
Are there words Dr. King spoke or wrote that you’re especially drawn to?
It’s more along the lines of how he’s inspired me personally. His overall mission for peace and understanding—and not focusing on separating the races but instead focusing on unity and a better understanding of the Black community—really resonates. I admire how he championed equality for all, and he openly challenged the American people to live up to the words of the Constitution, words written by those who owned slaves.
It’s sad, but look at what happened in America last summer and a couple of weeks ago. It’s clear how far we’ve come, but even clearer how much further we have to go. It was true in 1963 when Dr. King said it, and it’s true today.
What role does travel play in understanding people of different backgrounds?
Travel is the best possible way to experience someone else’s reality. When you travel, you experience new ways of doing things, from the mundane to the awe-inspiring. By doing things as simple as trying local cuisine in someplace new, or seeing what “breakfast food” means halfway around the world, you start to realize that there’s more than one way to do things. It opens your mind.
What does tomorrow hold for Dr. King’s work?
I have hope for the future. As painful and sad as it is to see what has unfolded since last summer and earlier this month, I have hope as we’re having more dialogue about issues in the Black community. I’m also heartened to see what’s happened in Georgia—where I used to live, as well as Dr. King—making the difference in the presidential election and switching momentum in Congress. It’s amazing to see, and it’s more than politics. We have work to do, but by addressing it, we’re getting started.
To learn more about African American history and culture in Washington, D.C., follow this link.
Top photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Photo by washington.org