Posted on January 21, 2002 in Washington Watch

This week across the United States, Americans will commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. It is appropriate to honor King, the great civil rights leader, whose efforts helped to reshape American political and social life.

The movement King led secured voting rights for disenfranchised African Americans who, one hundred years after the official end of slavery in the U.S., were still the victims of severe discrimination. This same civil rights movement also led to abolition of segregation, a system of law and practice that had divided America into two distinct worlds, one black and one white.

An entire generation of Americans does not realize the realities of U.S. life just 40 years ago. In several parts of our country, African Americans could not buy property, do business, reside, attend school, etc., in “white-only” neighborhoods. The struggle, led by King, to break down these barriers to racial separation in housing, employment, education and public accommodations was a difficult one. Though non-violent, it was met with violence. Thousands of protesters were arrested or beaten. Many lost their lives. In the end, it was King and his movement that won and forever changed the face of America.

Still, the work is not done. While legal segregation has ended, the legacy of racial division continues to haunt America.

As late as 1964, property deeds in my neighborhood in northwest Washington included a “covenant” that prohibited the sale of that property to African Americans. Thirty-seven years after those covenants were declared null and void, Washington, D.C., the United States’ capitol city, remains an extraordinarily divided city. Although two-thirds of the city’s population is African American, Washington is divided almost in half, from north to south, by Rock Creek Park. One side of the park is more than 90% white, the other is still 90% black.

And with that physical division goes significant differences in income, infrastructure, services and opportunities. All of which reminds us that there remains unfinished business to complete the work of Dr. King.

This year, many King commemorations will include another agenda item. It will be recalled that as Martin Luther King fought for civil rights and justice, he faced not only the opposition and brutality of local pro-segregationist law enforcement officials, he also faced challenges to his civil liberties as well. It is well-known how some federal officials spied on the civil rights movement and sought to disrupt its work. All of this intensified in the late 1960’s after Dr. King began to develop an international agenda and challenged the war in Vietnam.

And so it is important that this year an effort will be made to, once again, link the struggles for civil rights and civil liberties and to connect the struggles for international peace and justice with the domestic struggle for peace and justice.

In the first of these 2002 commemorative efforts, a major rally was held at Washington, D.C.’s convention center. The Arab American Institute (AAI) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) were central to planning this event with major civil rights and civil liberties organizations like: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Action Network, the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Council of La Raza, and the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium among many others.

The event, which has been called the “Call to Public Dialogue to Protect Civil Liberties”, was designed, in part, to defend the civil liberties of Arab Americans and American Muslims in the difficult post-September 11, 2001 period. In the “call” that announced the rally, the organizers defined the event’s political intent:

    As the time draws near for the annual remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, his legacy serves as an important reminder of the need for an active and outspoken defense of civil liberties and civil rights during these difficult days. Too often during times of national crises, the government has used the threat of investigation or actual investigations to silence social justice, civil rights and anti-war advocacy…The necessary and legitimate war against terrorism should not be used to permanently expand unchecked government power or to diminish the Bill of Rights…America is at a crossroads…We must rise to the occasion and demand that our government fight terrorism in a way that does not offend constitutional principles and American values.

This unprecedented support for the civil liberties of Arab Americans and American Muslims is significant. This was in evidence not only at the Washington, D.C., King event, but at similar events organized this week across the U.S.

What is also of importance here is that in raising the critical and challenging issues of civil rights and civil liberties, the King Day commemorative events have been given a cutting edge.

I can recall during the 1980’s when we marched in Washington on Dr. King’s birthday demanding that a national day of remembrance be set aside to not only honor the man, but to recommit the nation to his mission. One especially insightful African American leader predicted, with regret, that “we might win and get this holiday and live to see the day when the Dr. King that politicians honor is not the Martin Luther King we knew.”

In fact, this transformation and dimunition of the legacy of Dr. King has been taking place during the past decade. The image of King has been blurred. The reality of racism he confronted has been ignored as has the radical and revolutionary challenge he presented for the “status quo”.

The events organized this year, therefore, present an important antidote to this revisionism. This is important for history’s sake and it is important for the causes of civil rights and civil liberties that we remember the real struggles faced by King and that we organize anew to face the challenges to rights that are confronting us today.

For comments, contact jzogy@aaiusa.org.

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