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Psychologists reflect on 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's speech to APA Annual Meeting

King was an early identifier of the role of social science and mental health professionals in studying the impact of social injustice and advocating for social change

American Psychological Association

SAN FRANCISCO--In the summer of 1967, seven months before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the American Psychological Association (APA) annual meeting outlining the important role he believed psychologists and other social scientists should play in helping the United States overcome the legacy of slavery and continued racism.

King asserted that the promotion of mental health and psychological development was largely contingent on society's ability to afford opportunity and justice for all of its citizens. King challenged his APA audience to expand their scope beyond traditional work settings in order to acquire culturally competent skills and have a wider impact. He wanted social scientists to study and support specific structural changes, such as strategies to reduce earnings, health and educational disparities, that would foster the psychological well-being of large segments of society. King acknowledged that many within the white majority would have difficulty accepting such change but that it was up to social scientists to study such resistance and help people overcome it.

"In Dr. King's day, most psychologists of the time were generally uninterested in implementing new professional roles that could help ameliorate the complex problems of racial and structural inequities that existed in the 60s," remarks Dr. Michael D'Andrea, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and the Executive Director of the National Institute for Multicultural Competence. "What Dr. King saw that others had to learn was that individuals could realize new and untapped dimensions of their psychological health when they worked collectively to ameliorate the various forms of violence, injustice and oppression that diminish people's sense of dignity and value as human beings."

D'Andrea will be part of a panel at the APA's 115th annual convention in San Francisco reflecting on the King speech and examining whether psychology has fulfilled King's visions. The panelists will also announce plans for a three-year "national discussion" on race, peace and justice grounded in King's teachings. This discussion will consist of town hall style forums at universities across the United States.

Has Psychology Fulfilled Dr. King's Vision? Inequity and Racism as Public Health Issues

In 1967, King also called on social scientists to help build an understanding of the underlying causes of the urban violence and inner city rioting of the period.

King spoke of the need for social scientists to address what he called the "three pillars" of oppression and mental disorder in society. King wanted psychologists to study the interlinkages among the complex problems of racism, classism and militarism.

King was ahead of his time in his belief that social structures that foster social injustice and discrimination can lead to negative health outcomes and reduce psychological wellness, according to Dr. Thomas A. Parham, PhD, professor of Psychology at the University of California at Irvine, and another APA panelist.

Today, 40 years later, there is a growing body of published research that supports King's hypothesis. Currently, hundreds of studies, most published in psychological and medical journals within the last ten years, document the effects of racial discrimination on physical health including blood pressure and heart disease. While some health experts regard this evidence as preliminary, others now consider racism to be a health risk and a public health problem.

Understanding Modern Day Racism and Building a More Culturally Competent Mental Health Services Infrastructure

King would be pleased with the advancements made within the fields of counseling and psychology toward more cultural awareness, inclusion and competency, but more work has to be done, according to the APA panelists.

"One of modern psychology's most important contributions is its understanding of how individuals form their racial and cultural identities as well as their attitudes about in-group and out-of-group behavior and characteristics, states Parham. "What I would like to see my colleagues attack next is a better understanding of the complex ways in which racism, sexism, ableism, classism and heterosexism continue to manifest themselves as new forms of injustice in our contemporary society."

"Particular attention needs to be directed to the manner in which these new forms of injustice undermine the mental health not only of persons in marginalized groups but of those within the majority group who consciously and unconsciously hold on to discriminatory views," Parham concludes

"Today psychologists are increasingly accepting the mantel of working within our professional realms, both at an individual and societal level, to understand, challenge and ameliorate the effects of racism and other forms of prejudice and intolerance," states Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, assistant professor of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and a member of the APA Board of Directors. As Dr. King knew, racism and other forms of prejudice are not only costly to individuals; they are costly to whole communities and to society at large."


Presentations: "Remaining Awake During a Great Revolution: What Psychologists Can Do," Michael D'Andrea, EdD, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and "Relevance of MLK's Teachings for Psychology: A Liberatory Perspective," Thomas A. Parham, PhD, University of California-Irvine

Session 2103 - Symposium: Relevance of Martin Luther King's Teachings for Contemporary Psychologists, 9:00 - 9:50 AM, Saturday, August 18, Moscone Center, Second Floor-West Building, Room 2007, Session Chair: Judy Daniels, EdD, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Discussant: Joseph L. White, PhD, University of California-Irvine

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 148,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.

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