MLK Jr., Spiritual Transformation, and the Healing of the Nation

"Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Learn About Hazelden Betty Ford

By Andrew Williams

In recognition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation would like to express our gratitude and respect for Dr. King's transformative leadership, personal sacrifices and love for the marginalized. Inspired by Dr. King's moral fire, we know we can do more to advance health equity and healing justice, and that is our obligation and commitment. For more than 70 years, Hazelden Betty Ford has been a source of hope and healing for those struggling with substance use disorders. We have brought a radical ethic of care and grace to those struggling with addiction and the associated stigma, leveraging love to empower transformation. As our nation moves through yet another wave of the opioid and overdose crisis, and millions struggle with substance use disorders, our work is more important than ever. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates more than 100,000 Americans died from overdoses between May 2020 and April 2021—the most ever recorded in a single year. A recent CDC study found that nearly a million people have died in the U.S. from fatal overdoses since 1999. The intergenerational stressors of systemic racism and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 have taken an especially severe toll on mental health in BIPOC communities and intensified the addiction crisis and overdose epidemic, where we continue to see huge disparities.

Dr. King believed these transgenerational racial disparities are symptoms of America's spiritual poverty. Near the end of his life, King warned Americans that militarism, materialism, racism and indifference to poverty were threatening our democratic experiment and setting us on a path of spiritual decline. These do appear to be times to grow our souls. We are confronting many daunting challenges: COVID-19, a racial reckoning expressed through massive protests and violent counter-protests, and the most divisive political climate in recent memory. Anti-blackness and institutional racism persist in employment, housing, education, criminal justice, environmental justice and health care. Today, King's diagnosis resonates strongly with our Foundation.

In Strength to Love, King writes, "Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit." As a Foundation, we have recognized that healing from substance use disorders requires not just the courage to love, but also the courage to be loved. We know and have witnessed the spiritual nature of healing and transformation. We also recognize the need for more national investment and faster progress in addressing addiction as a public health problem and social justice issue.

Dr. King asked us to love America enough to change it. "I love this country," he used to say, "not only because my ancestors' blood is in the soil but because of what I believe it can become." Dr. King's legacy challenges us to deepen our work at the intersection of personal and social transformation. This includes speaking courageously to the root causes of America's lingering opioid and overdose crisis. And just as King wanted radical change in our nation, we must pursue radical change in health care so that quality, loving care is equitably accessible to all who struggle with addiction and mental health.

Inscribed prominently on the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington D.C. is the quote: "… out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope." As we honor Dr. King, our Foundation aspires to more fully live his legacy. We aspire to be courageous in broadening our banner, becoming more inclusive and reaching more people. And, we aspire to be a stone of hope in the pursuit of health equity and healing justice for the most marginalized in our society.

Andrew Williams is the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

About the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs. As the nation's leading nonprofit provider of comprehensive inpatient and outpatient addiction and mental health care for adults and youth, the Foundation has treatment centers and telehealth services nationwide as well as a network of collaborators throughout health care. Through charitable support and a commitment to innovation, the Foundation is able to continually enhance care, research, programs and services, and help more people. With a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center, the Foundation today is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in its services and throughout the organization, which also encompasses a graduate school of addiction studies, a publishing division, an addiction research center, recovery advocacy and thought leadership, professional and medical education programs, school-based prevention resources and a specialized program for children who grow up in families with addiction.