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MLK Jr. -- A Man For All Seasons

January 16, 2017

 

Postscript: I recently came across a commentary I published through New America Media on MLK, Jr. Holiday in 2011. I was struck with how much has changed in those six years. Back in 2011, Arizona was in the news because the state’s draconian anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, was wreaking havoc on immigrant communities and other states were passing copycat anti-immigrant laws. Days earlier United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others had been shot during a constituent meeting in a supermarket parking lot outside of Tucson.

 

The theatre rampage in Aurora, Colorado and the gunning down of 20 elementary school children, (six and seven year olds) at Sandy Hook, had not yet happened. Who could imagine that a young white man welcomed into a Bible study group at an African American church in Charleston would open fire and kill nine people.

 

Six years ago, #BlackLivesMatter didn’t yet exist, and while we knew that men of color, particularly African Americans, were victims of police killings in greater numbers than other groups, we did not yet have videos to dispute the police narratives about the circumstances under which many black lives ended at the hands of the police.

 

During my lifetime, I have had a front row seat to tectonic-scale changes that expanded our civil rights. When the doors of opportunity opened up for women, and racial and ethnic minorities, I walked through. More recently I experienced the love and joy as friends in same-sex relationships married, a birthright enjoyed by most of us, often multiple times. Change comes in fits and starts. 

 

Today we see a backlash against these gains. And the political climate has worsened. The mean-spirited tone set by the President-elect has contributed to bullying and an uptick in animosity towards so many groups: brown people, whether native-born or immigrants, particularly those with roots in Mexico and Latin America, and anyone perceived as Muslim. Racial minorities, members of the LGBT community, folks with disabilities, we hear those loud and clear messages that something about our presence is diminishing this country's greatness. 

 

We, the members of those communities and our allies are as strong as we’ve ever been and I am energized and encouraged by the commitment of our communities to show up for each other. I think of the abuse and mistreatment hurled upon people who fought for their rights. This is at the heart of the history of all nations and the liberation of all oppressed people. Today I reflect on the strength and endurance of Dr. King and thousands who were on the front lines of the battles for the respect and dignity that was legally denied for centuries to the African American community. They and their allies were subjected to murder, beatings, jailing, illegal surveillance, and every manner of undermining and betrayal. Still they endured and saw changes in the law that they dreamed possible. We are still pushing for true equality of opportunity and the respect and dignity that every human deserves – we aren’t there, but we don’t lose heart, and keep fighting for what is right. I am inspired by many of Dr. King’s words, especially these: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

 

My tribute to Dr. King published Jan. 17, 2011

As a young Mexican-American girl in the mid-1960s, I watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on television news leading marches in Birmingham and Atlanta. What I saw seemed a million miles away. 

My world began at the Texas-Mexican border and pretty much ended in San Antonio; these were the places where our relatives lived and thus the only places I ever visited. A Sunday afternoon outing might be a drive to Corpus Christi, for a dip in the Gulf of Mexico, and a chance to drive through the beautiful Anglo neighborhoods with brick houses, grassy green lawn and sidewalks. Someday, I said to myself, I’m gonna live in one of those houses. 

That’s when I began to see that Dr. King’s struggle was our struggle as well. After all, we too lived in completely segregated conditions. We were relegated to all-Mexican neighborhoods with substandard housing. Multi-generational families crowded into casita humildes, as our mothers would often refer to their homes upon welcoming visitors. All the nicer schools and parks were on the North Side of town, the Anglo neighborhoods. When our town finally built a public swimming pool, it went in the park in the Anglo side of town, far from the neighborhoods where we lived. Segregation was so complete that we had two parochial schools, one for the Anglos, and the other for Mexican Americans. Although Alice, Texas, had only one high school, the near-complete segregation continued through classroom assignments. Few of us went on to college and many never even finished high school. And most of the boys I had grown up with were drafted and went to Vietnam. 

Dr. King, and the lawyers at his side who helped give voice to the millions of people denied their basic human dignity, inspired me to a 30-year career as a lawyer, advocating for the fair and equal treatment of those who are scorned and disdained. 

As the national holiday approaches to celebrate the life of Dr. King, we hear his eloquent voice on the radio, which still moves deeply. And somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall that Arizona initially refused to recognize MLK Day as an official federal holiday. Arizona, in the news for all the wrong reasons: it launched a no-holds-barred campaign against immigrants, subjecting them to stops and searches and requiring proof of lawful presence. Let’s face it— the real targets are poor people who happen to look Mexican or Central American, no matter how many generations Arizona has been their home. In the saddest of ironies there are reported cases of Native Americans being stopped by the police mistaken for immigrants. 

The attention focused on Arizona and the anti-immigrant sentiment took a back seat in recent days with the horrific tragedy in Tucson. I have welcomed calls from all sides of the political spectrum beginning with President Obama’s moving remarks that we tone down the rhetoric and engage in civilized discourse. 

I would like to believe that if Dr. King were with us today, he would have led a march in the streets of Tucson or Phoenix. And central to his message of peace and reconciliation would have been according dignity and respect and legal protection to all immigrants. What is to be gained, he might have asked in a rousing speech, by rounding up and deporting women who are eight months' pregnant. How do we make this country stronger by denying citizenship to children born in the United States to parents that lack lawful status? And as he boldly took a stand against the Vietnam War, I can imagine that he would have spoken out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why are thousands of our young men and women from low-income families fighting and dying in foreign battles? And of course he would remind us to mourn the loss of human lives in those countries. 

In 1968, Cesar Chavez undertook his first public fast to raise awareness of the mistreatment of farm workers in California, a population that was predominately Mexican American and viewed as a disposable work force. Dr. King took time to send a brief telegram to Cesar Chavez. "Our separate struggles are really one,” he said. “A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.”

 

Post-post script: take three minutes to watch Karim Sulayman’s I Trust You video where the point is poignantly made that our separate struggles are really one:

https://vimeo.com/193125533?ref=em-v-share

 

 

 

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