As we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is appropriate to honor and reflect on Dr. King the great civil rights leader, whose efforts helped to reshape American political and social life.
The movement King led secured voting rights for disenfranchised African Americans who, one hundred years after the official end of slavery in the U.S., were still the victims of severe discrimination. This same civil rights movement also led to abolition of segregation, a system of law and practice that had divided America into two distinct worlds, one black and one white.
An entire generation of Americans does not realize the realities of U.S. life just a few decades ago. In several parts of our country, African Americans could not buy property, do business, reside, attend school, etc., in “white-only” neighborhoods. The struggle, led by King, to break down these barriers to racial separation in housing, employment, education and public accommodations was a difficult one. Though non-violent, it was met with violence. Thousands of protesters were arrested or beaten. Many lost their lives. In the end, it was King and his movement that won and forever changed the face of America.
Still, the work is not done. While legal segregation has ended, the legacy of racial division continues to haunt America.
As late as 1964, property deeds in my neighborhood in northwest Washington included a “covenant” that prohibited the sale of that property to African Americans. Thirty-seven years after those covenants were declared null and void, Washington, D.C., the United States’ capitol city, remains an extraordinarily divided city. Although two-thirds of the city’s population is African American, Washington is divided almost in half, from north to south, by Rock Creek Park. One side of the park is more than 90% white, the other is still 90% black.
And with that physical division goes significant differences in income, infrastructure, services and opportunities. All of which reminds us that there remains unfinished business to complete the work of Dr. King.
Many King commemorations include another agenda item. It will be recalled that as Martin Luther King fought for civil rights and justice, he faced not only the opposition and brutality of local pro-segregationist law enforcement officials; he also faced challenges to his civil liberties as well. It is well known how some federal officials spied on the civil rights movement and sought to disrupt its work. All of this intensified in the late 1960’s after Dr. King began to develop an international agenda and challenged the war in Vietnam.
And so it is important to, once again, link the struggles for civil rights and civil liberties and to connect the struggles for international peace and justice with the domestic struggle for peace and justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy serves as an important reminder of the need for an active and outspoken defense of civil liberties and civil rights during these difficult days. Too often during times of national crises, the government has used the threat of investigation or actual investigations to silence social justice, civil rights and anti-war advocacy…The necessary and legitimate war against terrorism should not be used to permanently expand unchecked government power or to diminish the Bill of Rights…America is at a crossroads…We must rise to the occasion and demand that our government fight terrorism in a way that does not offend constitutional principles and American values.
What is also of importance here is that in raising the critical and challenging issues of civil rights and civil liberties, the King Day commemorative events be given a cutting edge.
I can recall during the 1980’s when we marched in Washington on Dr. King’s birthday demanding that a national day of remembrance be set aside to not only honor the man, but to recommit the nation to his mission. One especially insightful African American leader predicted, with regret, “we might win and get this holiday and live to see the day when the Dr. King that politicians honor is not the Martin Luther King we knew.”
In fact, this transformation and diminution of the legacy of Dr. King has been taking place during the past decade. The image of King has been blurred. The reality of racism he confronted has been ignored, as has the radical and revolutionary challenge he presented for the “status quo”.
As we remember Dr. King we need to keep the real spirit of his movement alive. This is important for history’s sake and it is important for the causes of civil rights and civil liberties that we remember the real struggles faced by King and that we organize anew to face the challenges to rights that are confronting us today.