Today, we take time to reflect upon the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a true patriot who led the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. He was the epitome of peaceful protests, calling for the equal treatment of all people, regardless of their race.
It was during a time of segregation, unfair hiring practices, and other injustices for black Americans. In August 1963, Dr. King played a major role in the March on Washington, where approximately 200,000 people, black and white, gathered for a peaceful political rally. The event was intended to bring attention to the rights of black Americans.
With intense racial tension throughout the country, Dr. King stood at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and shared his dream for the future that, “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” (History.com, 2009). It was part of his ‘I have a dream’ speech – one that would become synonymous with Dr. Martin Luther King himself.
The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, ending segregation in public places and prohibiting employment discrimination. Eventually the Act paved the way for voting rights for all citizens, regardless of their race, sex, or nationality. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize and was named Time magazine’s, ‘Man of the Year.’
Unfortunately, today there are more heightened levels of racial tensions, accompanied by violent protests and riots. However, we honor Dr. King for his key role and success in ending division and segregation throughout America with peaceful demonstrations, and recognize his passion to unite all Americans. It was his dream for future generations to live in unity with equal opportunities and treatment, and without discrimination and segregation – we have come a long way, but we still need to improve.
Keith Gailliard grew up in Harlem, and the neighborhood where he lived was tough. The environment was challenging and could easily make a negative impact on kids. That would not happen to Keith. His mother embedded a fundamental sense of worth in him and a strong faith in God. She instilled love, respect, and acceptance of others regardless of their differences – no black or white. He modeled his mother’s values and is now a mentor to kids, and he believes they all should have a sense of pride for themselves and the community. Keith teaches them about self-worth and potential, and he doesn’t want to see any one of them fail.
From an early age, Keith’s mother inspired him to pursue his dreams and never give up. He always wanted to be involved with the community, and he went on to work with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and became a police officer – and it wasn’t easy. It was during a time of high racial tension and injustice. While working his shift one day, he was approached by a woman he did not know and she said something that remains etched in his mind, “You’re supposed to be with kids. That’s your calling.” Keith believes it was a calling from God.
When the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, it really hit home for him – he knew what it was like to be an officer and he had a cousin who died there. “Up until 9/11, people really didn’t know or pay attention to what public safety personnel did. But after that, people respected EMTs, firefighters, police officers, and other community workers,” Keith said.
Then, something overshadowed the darkest hour in United State’s history. People united and supported each other – regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion.
The attacks increased Keith’s desire to give more to his community. He became involved with a nonprofit, Friends of Local Heroes, which was established to provide lunch for emergency service workers. It started in 2002 and occurs annually around the anniversary of 9/11 in the Danbury area to recognize and show gratitude for public safety personnel.
Just as Keith’s mother was his inspiration as a young child, now he is the inspiration to children. He followed his calling as the woman told him years ago, and became very involved with kids by coaching youth sports for about 17 years. “I love to encourage kids and show them their worth,” he said. “I tell them they don’t have to settle when they fail – just get up and keep going.”
Keith was elected on the Board of Education in 2009 and is currently a Safety Advocate for Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, where he works very closely with students. He is a core influence for all of them. He understands that some kids may not have a parent or guardian who can provide direction and support, so it fuels his passion to help even more. “I want kids to have a legacy. I always tell them, don’t shoot for the moon – shoot for the stars.”
And he continues to do what he was meant to do: work with kids and be an encouraging influence in their lives. It will help them become productive citizens and leaders of tomorrow.
Keith is committed to making a difference in the community. He said, “People should know who their neighbors are. If you don’t have a sense of community, you won’t have a sense of worth.” He wants to be patriotic to his home and to be proud about where he lives. “If we all become patriotic where we live, we can make things better in the community; with enough people, we can make a change,” Keith said. “If we don’t care, then why will our kids care?”
Keith exemplifies the meaning of community leader and continues to be a huge influence in the lives of all who get to meet him.
Many people have different views on the meaning of patriotism. Some proudly stand at a Memorial Day parade and wave the American flag or watch fireworks on the 4th of July. Others salute an American veteran or donate to an organization that supports housing or healthcare for veterans; some people may have lost a loved one while serving in the military, so they volunteer for any organization that promotes patriotism. It is all of that, and so much more. American patriotism is also community involvement – being engaged in community events and helping each other – helping people when you can.
The following is an excerpt from Patriotism in America, A Historian Says It’s “Alive and Well,” by Cynthia Tintorri, (2015):
Long before current technology edged its way into everyone’s lives, a young man was making his way back home on a very desolate rural dirt road. About halfway through his journey, he realized he had a flat tire. He happened upon an older gentleman, a Marine veteran who took him to his own home, found a tire, drove the young man back to his car, and changed the flat for him.
“I’ll be back to pay you,” the young man told the veteran.
“No, son, I don’t want you to pay me,” the old man said. “I did what I did because I’m patriotic. If you want to pay me, I want you to spend your life being patriotic, too. Help people out when you can. That’s how you can repay me.” (Tintorri, 2015)
So, help people out when you can. That is community involvement. That is patriotism.