WASHINGTON -- More than 35 years after his assassination at the age of 39, the words and wisdom of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., still ring true today, activists from the civil and human rights community said today, on the U.S. national holiday named in his honor.
From civil rights, to school desegregation, to economic opportunity, to world peace, King's views remain as pertinent in the early years of the 21st century as they did in the 1950s and 1960s when he helped lead the non-violent struggle to make the Constitution's guarantees of liberty and equality before the law applicable to all Americans, including blacks, other minorities, and the poor.
Tens of thousands of people turned out in near freezing temperatures to take part in the annual three-mile march to honor the words and deeds of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., in San Antonio, Monday, Jan. 19, 2004. (Photo/Eric Gay)
"Dr. King's dream is not dead," said Dr. Dorothy Height, 91, whose leadership in the civil-rights movement spans seven decades. "There might not be the same vigor and righteous indignation in today's movement, but many, many people are fighting hard today."
Height, chairperson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and President Emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, was one of the first women leaders of the civil-rights movement. Segregation and discrimination, the two social ills that inspired King's work, she said, are not as obvious today as they were when the Civil Rights Act was made into law in 1964.
"The inequality is more subtle now," she said. "And we are fighting for different things. Today it is more of an accelerated kind of dedication."
On Thursday, King's 75th birthday, LCCR, the nation's largest and oldest civil-rights coalition, launched a year-long campaign, "2004: Civil Rights-Rekindle the Dream," that will include a series of events over the year, including a national effort to highlight continuing issues in discrimination during a year marking the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
It also will seek new legislation to restore civil rights protections that, in its view, have been weakened by a number of recent Supreme Court decisions that have made it easier for employers and schools to deny admissions to disadvantaged minority groups.
LCCR, which includes such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Organization for Women, will also be carrying out a multi-state effort to implement the "Help America Vote Act" and help ensure a fair 2004 election.
"This year promises to be an important year for civil rights," said Wade Henderson, LCCR's executive director. "The presidential and congressional elections this fall will have a profound impact on the civil rights of all Americans for decades. Now, more than ever, America needs to be reminded of the vision Dr. King laid out for the nation."
Also marking Monday's celebration will be the airing by PBS of a new two-hour documentary, "Citizen King," on King's last five years, when he moved beyond the civil-rights movement to align himself with the nation's poor and with the anti-Vietnam war effort.
"We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors," he wrote in 1968, the same year of his death. "If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."
But he also stressed that the war carried huge domestic costs, particularly in the loss of resources that could be devoted to increasing employment and reducing poverty.
We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr
The Vietnam War, he wrote, "has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending $500,000 to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about $500,000--while we spend only $53 a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty."
King was shot down in April 1968 while visiting Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers, among the poorest of the unionized workers at the time, a point stressed by John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, who noted that their struggle for better wages and benefits was still being fought by union workers everywhere.
"There's still a huge reservoir of racism, sexism, and homophobia in our country, as well as terrible economic inequality," Sweeney said. "Much like the civil-rights activists of 40 and 50 years ago, we're usually up against opponents who are clever ruthless, rich, and determined to crush us. But we're never going to be handed any victories for cheap," he added.
More than eight million U.S. workers are currently out of work, while about one of every four workers lives barely above the poverty line, even though most have high school diplomas, according to Marc Morial, president of the Urban League.
"If American society makes the jobs available they will come," he said. "Americans need jobs. Jobs at decent wages bring economic stability (and) lower the crime rate."
Other problems dating back to the period of King's leadership also persist, according to activists who pointed to a Harvard University study released Sunday that showed that public schools in the United States are almost as segregated as they were when King was killed.
"We are celebrating a victory over segregation at a time when schools across the nation are becoming increasingly segregated," the report by the Harvard Civil Rights Project concluded. Only 30 percent of black students currently attend predominantly white schools in southern states, down from 43 percent in 1988, the historic high. Resegregation has steadily increased since a 1991 Supreme Court decision that permitted a return to neighborhood schooling by school districts deemed to have made a good-faith effort at integration.
"We still have not committed ourselves as a country to the mandate of Brown vs. Board of Education," the 1954 Supreme Court case that found that segregated school systems were unequal. "If these trends are not reversed, we could easily find ourselves back to 1954," the report concluded. A watershed in U.S. history, the Brown decision helped propel the civil-rights movement and, shortly thereafter, King himself, into the national spotlight.
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