As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, young people with no living memory of the civil rights leader may ask, “What is this all about, anyway? We had a black president, right?”
When we recall the nonviolent struggle King led, alongside millions of Americans of all races and creeds, not all of us may recall the extent to which mere dissent could put lives and careers in danger, and simple gestures of protest, such as marching, were acts of bravery. Sitting at segregated lunch counters in 1960 was courageous. Registering voters in the South was courageous. Using public facilities such as restrooms or riding in the front of a bus was courageous. In the lifetimes of some of your parents and your grandparents, people were lynched because of the color of their skin.
Four little girls attending Sunday school, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, died in 1963 when the Ku Klux Klan firebombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Three young men, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were murdered in Mississippi for registering voters in Freedom Summer, 1964. King and Medgar Evers were assassinated.
The notion then that a black man could become president of the United States was all but incomprehensible, although in 1961, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy mused that he thought it possible that a black man could be elected president in the next 30 or 40 years. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy had no chance of getting civil rights legislation passed. His Southern successor, Lyndon Johnson, managed to get it done in part in homage to JFK..
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President Ronald Reagan declared in 1983 that the nation would set aside a day in King’s honor, saying: “Traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day:
“Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true, and in his words, ‘all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, … land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’”
Eight years after Obama took the oath of office, we have, by any measure, made tremendous progress. In other ways, however, the country still fights old battles. Why, for example, are we arguing over voting rights, and why has the incoming president chosen a virtually all-white male Cabinet? President-elect Donald Trump sought support from African American voters by asking them: “What do you have to lose?”
We will see.
Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who is a hero of the 1965 March on Selma, felt compelled to testify against Trump’s nominee to become U.S. attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Obama, an Illinois Democrat, and Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican and an African American, have described being racially profiled by police.
When the overwhelming majority of blacks vote for Democrats and most whites vote for Republicans, have we really made substantial gains in reconciling racial attitudes? Is it progress when legislatures gerrymander districts so that black candidates need not run because only white candidates can win?
Republican governors and legislators pass laws that inhibit the ability of black people to vote, and scare tactics are employed to suppress Latino turnout. It’s an insult to King’s work and it threatens democracy.
To young people who want to know why the struggle persists, why people need to make their voices heard, and why we honor King today, we say this: We have many miles to go before we reach the mountaintop.