Commemorating King’s Legacy and Invoking Change

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

MLK Day: King’s legacy must go beyond the surface.

Hundreds gathered this morning for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. memorial breakfast, the nation’s longest-running event held in honor of the slain civil rights leader.“Selma” producer and cast member Oprah Winfrey joined the movie’s director and several stars for a special series of events in Selma, Ala. over the weekend. Topper Carew, an architect and civil rights advocate, delivered the keynote address, recalling his childhood in Roxbury and his summer as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in 1964.

More than a quarter of white adults asked last week strongly agreed with the statement, “America is a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Yet only 16% of African-Americans polled said the same, a number that has fallen one percentage point since President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008. Surely, the impact and import of his powerful words delivered in 1963 with that compelling voice, ringing out across the National Mall from the lectern at Lincoln’s feet, are etched into our collective consciousness as a country. Day have this year linked the federal holiday to a rallying cry in recent months during demonstrations over police brutality: “Black lives matter.” Protesters gather near illuminated letters spelling”DREAM” outside the residence of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

The poll of 800 Americans, conducted between Jan. 14 and 17, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points, with larger margin for subgroups. The 45th annual breakfast, which drew several hundred people to the Boston Convention Center, kicked off a series of local events held to honor King, who was assassinated in April 1968 at the age of 39. I recall a colleague some years ago offhandedly commenting that the only reason we really even acknowledge King at all is because the kids are off from school. Activists are also planning a 4-mile march in Boston to coincide with dozens of other cities across the country to protest police brutality and call for law-enforcement reform. Other protests were planned in major cities such as Dallas and New York, where the family of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a police chokehold, was set to lay a wreath on the Brooklyn street where two uniformed officers were ambushed in December by a gunman claiming to avenge Garner’s death.

Although this colleague was alive during the societal struggles of the 1960s, for him, King, the civil rights movement and the holiday had no resonance. He was white, and, to him, that anyone would actually celebrate King’s legacy was a foreign concept — exclusively a “black thing” that never touched his life.

Obama’s 2008 election, African-American sentiments about equality and opportunity rose steadily, if gradually, according to previous NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, until this most recent survey, which indicated a major reversal in sentiment. The sentiment resounded even at traditional events honoring King that were under way elsewhere, including a King commemoration at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King once preached. The January survey comes months after a restive summer that brought questions of race and equality into sharp relief, precipitated by the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and by the police-involved death of another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, in Staten Island, N.Y.

Grand juries declined to indict the officers involved in those deaths, sparking days of sometimes-violent protests in Ferguson and demonstrations across the U.S. It’s hard to step out from that insulated bubble.” In some ways, the celebrations across communities may even unintentionally encourage some of that perceived exclusivity by too sharply focusing on community through racial identity. And because it’s so pervasive and so subtle, it is is hard to pinpoint what the issues are…we are here to attack the system.” At this morning’s breakfast, Governor Charlie Baker remembered King as a man of “peace, faith, and strength.” Quoting King’s famous words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Baker urged the audience to honor his legacy. This year, 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights legislation, King’s memory “resonates more than ever,” said Martin J. Bernice King,” he said, addressing King’s daughter. “I only stepped into his shoes for a moment, but I asked myself, ’How did he do it?’ ” Oyelowo said.

Certainly, some who comment passionately here on stories question whether it’s being carried by today’s civil rights leaders; others even suggest it is being perverted to encourage racial division rather than unity. In a recorded video message, US Senator Elizabeth Warren pledged to continue the “fight for full equality.” While the country has made progress, “we can’t ignore reality,” she said. He explained that he, like King, has four children and said he cannot imagine walking through life knowing there are people who wanted to take their lives or that of his wife. In a rousing speech that received a standing ovation, US Senator Ed Markey said the American Dream remains out of reach for too many people, and that deep racial disparities persist.

Louis and Minneapolis are among the many cities where organizers planned marches to capitalize on the recent national discussion about race and policing. White officers used clubs and tear gas on March 7, 1965 — “Bloody Sunday” — to rout marchers intent on walking to Montgomery, the Alabama capital, to seek the right for blacks to register to vote. It’s with this slight refocusing that King’s legacy can continue to move beyond the monumental moment and not relegate the speech and the movement to being simply a monument, frozen in time and relevance.

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