Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and his Legacy (summary)

By Carlos Muñoz Jr.

On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and Holiday, the two leading candidates of the Democratic Party went out of their way to mention Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in their campaign rhetoric.  Then they debated who was more important to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, President Lyndon Johnson or Dr. King.  They lost sight of what Dr. King really stood for. Today we are in the midst of a historic moment of profound crisis. It’s therefore of critical importance that the presidential candidates and the nation as a whole remember what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for during his lifetime so that we may find the inspiration to honor him properly.

We must use this year’s holiday as a call for action against the tide of social injustice at home and a misguided tragic war that is taking its toll on our soldiers and the innocent people of Iraq.

In the 1960s, King’s deeds and words inspired thousands of courageous black and white Americans to commit their lives to the struggle for racial inequality and democracy in the South. Hundreds of activists were beaten and arrested. A few were shot to death.

But King’s inspiration went beyond black and white. By the late ‘60s, other youth of color were inspired to organize their own civil-rights movements.

As was the case with civil-rights activists in the South, Mexican American activists were also jailed, beaten and killed for protesting and speaking out against racism throughout the Southwest.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the two key historic events that ignited the emergence of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement throughout the Southwest.  Over 10,000 Mexican American high school students walked out during the month of March 1968, from the three high schools located in the barrios of Los Angeles, CA. 

The second event was the arrest and indictment of 13 civil-rights activists who were later identified as the key organizers of the walkouts. I was one of them. The indictments were part of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) strategy to disrupt and undermine all the civil rights movements.  We each faced 66 years in prison for the felony “crime” of conspiring to commit misdemeanors to disrupt the educational system of the City of Los Angeles. It took two years for the higher courts of the State of California to free us from the conspiracy charges. The State Appellate Court ruled we were innocent by virtue of the First Amendment.

Our movement adopted King’s philosophy of nonviolence and echoed his ideas for racial equality and justice, and we applied them to Mexican Americans and other Latinos. Our movement also won significant victories that led to more Latino political representation, equal opportunity in employment, access to higher education via affirmative action programs and Chicano Studies programs.

Today, we should celebrate and remember those collective victories. Most importantly, we must remember those who, like Dr. King, put their lives on the line in the struggle for racial equality and social justice.

We should remember that King’s vision was not limited to what he said in his “I Have a Dream” speech.  In other speeches he made clear that the struggle against racism was directly connected to the issues of poverty, war and peace and democracy.

In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, for example, he called the war “the enemy of the poor.” He vividly saw the connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle against poverty and racial inequality at home. He spoke out against the Vietnam War because it not only drained funds away from meeting the human needs of the poor at home, but also sent black men to fight and die ostensibly for democracy abroad when it did not exist in Georgia or East Harlem at the time.

War is once again the enemy of the poor. The lower class accounts for a disproportionate share of the U.S. fighting force, and the cost of the war - to the tune of billions— drains the treasury of funds for the poor.

Many of us have already broken the silence against the war in Iraq. King would have wanted us not to be intimidated by those who tell us it is unpatriotic to openly criticize our government and the president during a time of war.

We must have the same courage King had and demand that the war against the innocent people of Iraq be stopped immediately.

The billions being misspent in Iraq must be diverted to fight poverty at home. If he were alive today, King would be one of the leaders against the war in Iraq.

We must put King’s vision into practice and keep his revolutionary spirit alive in our struggle to build an authentic multiracial democracy committed to social justice and peace at home and abroad. 

Dr. Carlos Muñoz Jr. is an award-winning author and long-time activist.  He was honored by Community Works as one of 12 civil-rights activists who changed the face of our nation.