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Standing Up For Freedom, Peace and Justice: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By Naomi Nakamura

Martin Luther King, Jr.

For this year’s holiday honoring Dr. King, we are printing 3 commentaries on King’s political thinking that are important for understanding today’s situation – Fight Back! editors.

The birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been a national holiday for the last twenty years. It is a time to remember his life, to reflect on the changes brought about by the Civil Rights movement and to recommit ourselves to his struggle for peace, economic justice and racial equality.

This January, the coming U.S. war with Iraq, the economic recession that has thrown millions out of work and the government persecution of Arabs and Muslims make it all the more important that we remember what Dr. King fought for.

Growing up in California, I can remember the racial segregation. When my parents were looking to buy a house, there were three separate listings of homes for sale: one for whites, one for blacks, and another for ‘others.’ When I went swimming with an African American friend’s family, we drove for miles to a swimming pool in a large black community. And I remember having to walk out of a restaurant after waiting almost half an hour for someone to take our order, while whites who came in after us had already gotten their meals.

Later, when I went to school, I learned about how Dr. King led the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which began in 1955. In Montgomery, white supremacy meant that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, and if the seats were full, blacks had to give up their seat to white passengers boarding the bus. For more than a year, the African American community, sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, did not ride a bus until the city agreed to desegregate the bus system.

I saw film clips of the brutal treatment of Civil Rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. Fire hoses and vicious dogs were turned on the protesters and more than four thousand – mostly children – were arrested. And how could anyone forget the words of Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington? Facing a crowd of more than 250,000 people, Dr. King spoke of his dream of brotherhood. “Let freedom ring!” said Dr. King, ending his speech with the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”

The struggle of the Civil Rights movement ended racial segregation and won blacks the right to vote, which had been denied them since the 1890’s. But the struggle of Dr. King did not end there. In 1964, police brutality triggered an insurrection by African Americans in Los Angeles. The poverty of the urban black ghetto in Watts and other cities in the North and Midwest led Dr. King to champion the cause of economic justice. In 1968, Dr. King was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign, saying, “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work.”

Dr. King was also an early advocate of affirmative action. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in 1957, created Operation Breadbasket to create jobs and business opportunities for the black community. “If a city has a 30% Negro population,” said Dr. King, “then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30% of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only menial jobs, as the case almost always happens to be.”

Last, but not least, Martin Luther King Jr. was an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam. His principled support for nonviolence led him to say, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”

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