Dr. Ben Danielson sweatshirt

At the Seattle Martin Luther King Jr. Organizing Coalition's annual rally and march on Monday.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech sort of snubbed Washington. Toward the address’s stirring end, King Jr. listed mountains from which folks should “let freedom ring”—from the “prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” to the “snow-capped Rockies of Colorado” to the “curvaceous slopes of California.” For all their rhetorical potential, our state’s Cascades and Olympics didn’t make the cut.

Of course, no one takes umbrage with Dr. King’s omission around here (it’s actually impressive how much ground he does cover in one of the speech’s many figurative flourishes), and it certainly hasn’t stopped locals from delivering his message at elevation.

Yesterday, on an incline outside Garfield High School in the Central District, civil rights activists once again led the Seattle Martin Luther King Jr. Organizing Coalition’s annual MLK Day rally and march. The 39th edition of the event was the first since the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, injustices that catalyzed Black Lives Matter protests this summer. Signs and speeches honored Floyd and Taylor as well as John Lewis, the civil rights icon who died last July. His life of protest inspired the event’s “Good Trouble” theme.

But a more recent cause also took center stage on Monday. Just before attendees began to march south on 23rd Avenue, a black sweatshirt bearing the words “I Believe Dr. Ben Danielson” was draped over the podium. Many in attendance donned the item.

Until recently Dr. Ben Danielson served as the medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. Located just off 23rd in the Central District, the pediatric care center derives its name from the fight for racial justice. Organizer Odessa Brown advocated for health care equity in the neighborhood, especially for its children, during the middle of the 20th century. She helped secure federal funding for a clinic to serve low-income families of diverse backgrounds. Less than a year before its founding, she died of leukemia.

Danielson completed his residency at Odessa Brown and assumed the center’s top post in 1999. A 2016 Seattle Times story called him a “quiet hero of health care,” and in 2018 he gave the commencement speech at the University of Washington. But in the waning hours of 2020, Crosscut reported that Danielson had left his position at the clinic. The doctor cited racism at Seattle Children’s as the reason for his departure.

In a subsequent opinion piece for the South Seattle Emerald, Danielson went into further detail. He wrote that Seattle Children’s is more likely to call security on a Black family “expressing their grief or angst” than a white family. He also noted that the organization is “contemplating eliminating all in-person interpretation, just like many other hospitals” amid financial distress. The policy would make it even more difficult for families who don’t speak English as a first language to communicate with care teams. “This is not unique, yet it is not okay,” Danielson writes.

He stressed that the hospital’s predominantly white leadership team had engaged in “misogynistic and racist” behavior that, he observed, is all too typical in this country. “It might not be a surprise to find that during my time at SCH a leader has used the N-word in referring to me when speaking to other staff members,” Danielson wrote. “If you look more closely, it may begin to raise bigger concerns to know that top leadership at the time dismissed this as mere cussing. It may raise somewhat more concerns to find that what the hospital calls an ‘investigation’ exonerated this person. It may raise even higher concerns to see the hospital lift this person up as a champion for diversity.”

Initially, a Seattle Children’s spokesperson said the organization would examine the problems raised by Danielson. In early January, the organization announced that it would form a committee “to work with an outside independent expert to assess our organization’s anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion practices.” Crosscut had unearthed a letter signed by, among others, civil rights leader Larry Gossett, King County Council member Girmay Zahilay, and former Sonics player and coach Lenny Wilkens, that had urged Seattle Children’s to form the committee and hire an independent legal firm to investigate Danielson’s allegations.

Last week, the committee announced that none other than former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder would help lead that investigation. “We look forward to working with the Committee to undertake this important evaluation,” Holder, now a partner at Covington and Burling, said in a statement.

It’s an assessment that bears watching, not only because it probes how this city cares for its children and reckons with racial justice but also because it may invite a broader inquiry. Last year, in the aftermath of Floyd's death, companies and organizations across the country released anti-racism statements and pledges to "do better." But history, recent history, tells us that these words can prove hollow. Every MLK Day now, including yesterday, brings performative quotes from organizations and figures whose conduct counteracts the cause of racial justice.

Danielson, who's accepted a position at UW, wants accountability. "I have done this," he wrote in the Emerald piece, "because institutions make symbolic gestures and tout them but will not really change."

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