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January 11, 2011 > Martin Luther King's life and legacy

Martin Luther King's life and legacy

By Abraham Cruz

For many Americans, civil rights are an unquestioned everyday norm of society. For those Americans too young to remember, they are the recipients of the struggles and sacrifices of many social activists, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, and became one of the most prominent figures of the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by Mahatma Ghandi's teachings of non-violent resistance, King employed peaceful social disobedience to bring greater attention to the struggle of civil rights for African-Americans.

His non-violent civil protest won both supporters for the causes he championed, and detractors who feared his influence and opposed change. Through writing, public oration, and peaceful protestation, King was a driving force for social change, intent on improving the welfare of African-Americans in every aspect of American society.

He was instrumental in leading the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the first public challenges to institutionalized racism. The discriminatory practice of forcing African-Americans to ride in the back of the bus and surrender their seats to white riders came to a head when Rosa Parks famously refused to give her seat to a white passenger, resulting in her arrest while simultaneously providing the catalyst needed for the nascent civil rights movement.

The boycott saw African American riders refusing to ride the bus until conditions improved, which was a huge financial blow to the Montgomery public transportation system, as most of the riders were African Americans. It was King's first major victory; after 382 days, the United States Supreme Court ruled racial segregation of the bus unconstitutional, thus ending segregation on public transportation (1964).

King was among the founding members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and also served as its first president until his death. The SCLC was an instrumental organization that lead demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham against injustices perpetuated against African Americans.

King's most triumphant moment (and the one for which he is most fondly remembered) is the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his most famous public address, the "I Have a Dream" speech. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial King delivered a powerful and stirring oration which espoused his dream of living in a nation "where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Quoting portions of the Declaration of Independence, King sought to incorporate the promise of the American Dream with his own version of the dream, which was equal rights and respect for all people across the nation.

The civil rights movement sought a vast change in American social consciousness, "because the struggle was about far more than just civil rights under law; it was also about fundamental issues of freedom, respect, dignity, and economic and social equality." Two major pieces of legislation were passed that changed the social climate of the country for good: the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination and racial segregation, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prevented discriminatory voting practices against African-Americans.

King's struggle for civil rights ended with his assassination on March 29, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.

A highly charismatic public speaker and influential leader, King has left a legacy as great as his accomplishments. He is recognized as the youngest person ever to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, and is an icon for the struggle of human rights. His birthday is recognized as a national holiday, and memorials are aired on television and radio of his struggles, sacrifices and achievements.

Modern-day civil rights issues differ greatly from the main struggles King and his contemporaries undertook. Although blatant racism and racial discrimination are no longer tolerated in American society, many civil rights issues arise from lifestyle and cultural differences.

One group of people facing various challenges are the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community who face many social and legal hurdles in their efforts to secure the same rights and status as heterosexual people. The most recent example was Proposition 8, a ballot proposition which refused to recognize same-sex marriage in the state of California. Proposition 8 was passed on November 4, 2008, resulting in mass-protests by opponents of the proposition and it's tenets, as well as a California Constitutional amendment stating marriage is recognized as a union only between a man and a woman.

Civil unions (also known as domestic partnerships) are legally recognized partnerships comparable to marriage. Interestingly, while California is one state that recognizes civil unions, the state constitution bans same-sex marriage. While the challenges to same-sex marriage continue in the form of countless court rulings and appeals, the LGBT communities may be viewed as a separate minority with continuing struggles to achieve recognition and equal protection under state and federal laws that make their plight similar yet unique in the debate of civil rights.

Two of the most important topics of the national dialogue are related to immigration and terrorism in regards to national security. Perhaps most obvious would be the decision of Arizona governor Jan Brewer to enact Senate Bill 1070, a law that threatens deportation of undocumented illegals in the state of Arizona if proof of U.S. citizenship is not presented. The law, signed on April 23, 2010, was undoubtedly intended to instigate a serious debate on the need for immigration reform, but threatens to potentially violate the civil rights of both illegals and citizens alike with its system of racial profiling in order to carry out its intended purpose. Whether or not Arizona's law is legal under the United States constitution, there is no doubt the debate on immigration reform has been renewed with more urgency than previously allocated.

Another civil rights clash is France's problematic issue in regards to outlawing the burqa veil, a traditional Muslim form of dress for Muslim women. Many opponents feel that outlawing the burqa would stigmatize many Muslims, since France is home to Europe's largest Muslim population. Proponents of the ban, however, claim the "veils don't square with the French ideal of women's equality or its secular tradition." Whether racially or culturally-based, clearly France is experiencing a cultural shift not unlike the United States during the mid-twentieth century, and is attempting to deal with the situation in its own way.

These issues are but a small portion of the challenges different communities face on a daily basis. Whether it's the battle for equality through legal recognition or sanction (same-sex marriage or undocumented illegals working in the United States), or differences in culture and religion (Muslims and Islamic traditions), the struggle for civil rights is an ongoing battle for different groups of people to have their voices, customs, and cultural norms heard and respected.

Many people may wonder what Dr. King would have thought of the current state of civil rights. But I believe that instead of asking what King would have thought, it would be more prudent to ask what he would have done. King's devotion to achieving civil rights for African-Americans is instruction in conflict resolution for the future, and we would be remiss to ignore his legacy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace March
Monday, January 17
9:30 a.m.
Gather at Hayward City Hall Plaza 777 B Street (at Watkins) for music and the words of Dr. King. At 10 a.m. the March of Witness will commence; in celebration of Hayward's diversity, attendees are invited to carry organizational banners and wear national dress. Return to City Hall Plaza at 10:30 a.m. to listen to song and be inspired by Dr. King's words of courage, hope, and justice. For more information call (510) 581-2060 or visit

Fremont/Newark YMCA's 5th Annual MLK Celebrate Diversity Breakfast
Friday, January 14
7:30 a.m. - 9:30 a.m.
Newark Hilton
39900 Balentine Dr., Newark

Join us for an inspirational program with guest speakers Rev. Tommy Smith and Keynote Speaker Assemblymember Mary Hayashi, along with music and other presentations. Breakfast Buffet is $40 per plate or $400 per table. For reservations or sponsorship information call (510) 657-5200.

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