By Chaitram Aklu
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at age 39. It was on April 4, 1968 that he was killed by an assassin’s bullet on the morning he was to lead a march of striking Sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee. Much has been achieved by the Civil Rights Movement over the past decades, but in 2018 nearly 800 000 innocent young are in danger of being deported if Congress does not act to prevent deportation. So aluta continua – the struggle continues.
Five years ago on August 28, 2013, was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. I could not miss this event. At the historic march in 1963 King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech when Mahelia Jackson urged him to “Tell them about the dream.” to a crowd of about 250 000. On the 50th anniversary march (although there has been no official count) the Washington DC Metro reported more than 415,000 trips taken by 4 p.m. on Wednesday (the day of the march), more than the 409,000 trips taken by the same time the day before.
Congressman John Lewis, the last living speaker and the youngest at age 23, of the ‘Big Six’ of the Civil Rights Movement, at the 1963 march and whom I had the privilege of meeting before the 50th anniversary march, told the crowd, “Sometime I hear people saying nothing has changed, but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes we want to tell them come and walk in my shoes. Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail.”
Dr. King, who visited India in 1959 and paid tribute to Gandhi by visiting his shrine (February 11) and became known in India as the ‘American Gandhi’ was truly committed to nonviolence. In July 1959, he wrote, “I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
However many even within his inner circle, including Rosa Parks, were unsure. Author Taylor Branch recalled a moment in an interview with Ron Rosenbaum for the Smithsonian Magazine. It was during a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the still very segregated Birmingham Alabama, in September 1962. A man from the audience jumped on the stage and punched King real hard more than once. King just stood there with his hands to his sides. When King’s people realized it was no act and tried to stop him, King told them: “Do not touch him! Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.” The man was later identified as a member of the American Nazi Party.
Rosa Parks told king that she had never really seen it (commitment to nonviolence) in him until that moment, Branch told Rosenbaum.
Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus on December 1, 1955 and that incident led the historic 13-month Montgomery bus boycott, and the landmark Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. King had begun to observe carefully Gandhi’s practices in India, and implementing them in the boycott at the time, and later wrote in 1959, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change.”
There has been progress. At the end of the very day of the 1963 march on Washington, President Kennedy, met with King and his team at the White House and commended them for the peaceful manner of the march and pledged to work with them. The Voting Rights Act was signed on August 6, 1965. It abolished the right to vote based on a literacy test and provided special provisions for enforcement including judicial oversight. Further no change in provisions could be implemented until such change was approved by the Attorney General of the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 which is widely known as the Fair Housing Act was passed just four days after King was assassinated. It outlawed discrimination in housing such as redlining, a policy of determining which neighborhoods to approve mortgages in and the writing in of racially restrictive covenants into deeds.
The original Act covered only race, color, religion, and national origins. Later in 1974 sex was added, and in 1988 disability and familial status were included.
On the day King was scheduled to lead a march of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, April 4, 1968, he was assassinated by James Earl Wray, as he stood on the balcony on the black owned Lorraine Hotel (later changed to Lorraine Motel) where he was staying. Conditions for workers were deplorable. One worker recalled “Most of them tubs (55 gallons) leaked like hell. They had an odor, and when it started leaking, and you put that tub on your shoulder and put it on you it would leak on you and you’d smell like garbage.”
Only whites were allowed to drive the trucks and they were allowed to shower at the depot. The pay was about one dollar an hour. Management had refused to negotiate with the workers for better conditions. They finally went on strike when two workers were accidentally crushed in a garbage truck they were sheltering in during a rainstorm. The strike lasted for two months and there were some gains. However, many workers moved away.
The Lorraine Hotel failed, was scheduled for demolition, but was saved and on September 28, 1991 opened as the National Civil Rights Museum.
While it may still not be simple to enforce, and litigation can take years because institutions and individuals have employed devious ways to cover their crime, justice under Fair Housing Act, finally forced Bank of America Countrywide Unit to pay $335 million to settle a discrimination suit in 2011. Another financial institution, Wells Fargo also settled a discrimination suit for $175 million in 2012.
The struggle is far from over. Dr. King loved children and often spoke about the plight of children. On June 15, 2012 the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was announced by President Obama. The program allowed for children brought by their parents illegally into the US to stay but they would have to apply every two years for work authorization. Congress was supposed to enact legislation, the DREAM Act, to legalize the status of these individuals who number about 800 000. For many of these dreamers who arrived here so young, the US is the only country they can call home. They enjoyed protection from deportation and the freedom to study and work under a program and are making their contribution in the American society. But The DACA program will end in March this year. If Congress does not act, they will lose that protection and face deportation. This is an issue of which Dr. King would have been at the forefront.
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in explaining the work of great leaders wrote: “When their goal is the abolition of slavery, the liberation of women, the enlargement of opportunity for the poor and powerless, the extension of rights for racial minorities, the defense of the freedoms of expression and opposition, it is likely their leadership will increase the sum of human liberty and welfare. — “Great leaders, in short, justify themselves by emancipating and empowering their followers.” Gandhi, King and Lewis have proved to be great leaders.
And so in the words of the living Civil Rights icon, John Lewis, King “taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. — to have the power to forgive, the capacity to be reconciled. — to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to find a way to get in the way.” We have an obligation to find a way to get in the way. The struggle continues.