Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. (Part I)

This is first in a series of blog entries by the Maryland Humanities Council honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 40th anniversary of his assassination.

It was April 4, 1968, 40 years ago. I was a third-year student at Howard University Law School. With classmate, Kellis Earl Parker (who would serve as a Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis and Professor of Law at Columbia University, New York City) I was at the office/chambers of the Honorable Spottswood W. Robinson in downtown Washington, D.C. At a point in the early evening, a U.S. Marshall, clearly shaken—and almost disoriented—announced the news that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and that many cities, communities and neighborhoods, including Washington, D.C., were being assaulted, experiencing fires, violence and looting.

An immediate call to my home assured me that my wife and our children were all safe. Kellis made contact with his family and to our relief, they were also safe. We still faced a hurdle. Because of the manifestation of action and anger, the city had been placed under police and National Guard (martial law) control, and if I were going to reach my home (at 5th and Hamilton Streets, N.W.) I would have to obtain a pass from the U.S. Marshall or face the possibility of arrest for curfew violation.

Black men, walking or driving, on that evening in the streets of Washington were likely to be detained. Very carefully, I drove toward Union Station, such that I could take North Capitol, toward the Old Soldiers Home, thus dodging and bypassing Georgia Avenue, 7th Street, H Street, New Jersey Avenue, 14th Street, and V Street, where signs of disorder were being described on the radio.

Now, some 40 years later, we look back at Rev. King's efforts, at the modern Human and Civil Rights Movement, and it is easy to realize that he was asking the nation to implement the socioeconomic and political equality promised by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

In recent months, this nation and world have heard some strongly expressed concerns about human rights. The president of the United States and the leaders of Russia, China and other countries have exchanged verbal attacks and counterattacks with respect to which country is more humane toward its citizens, and who is more genuinely concerned about the political, social and economic plight suffered by many people around the world. The record shows that these debates have escalated.

I fully expect a continuation of these verbal exchanges, particularly between the various powers as they jockey for position on the stage of world affairs. In fact, many may look at the contest and conclude that it is a classic game of transnational politics and that their concerns and energies must be directed toward more immediate matters. Some might even say that international affairs are so far removed from domestic issues that we should look the other way.

But when we examine what is involved, it becomes transparently clear that the global search for human rights is in close kinship to the day-to-day struggle which confronts millions of people in the U.S., and those matters which affect the lives of thousands in every American hamlet, village and town.

Our experience has shown that the matter of human relations and human rights usually is examined from the perspective of political observations and social contexts. And the emphasis is placed on the constant needs in these areas. But we would advance the notion that political and social rights mean little without the existence of economic justice and economic democracy. I am of the opinion that human rights must be assured through the existence of political democracy—institutions through which every person can enjoy peace and the pursuit of happiness.

Rev. King recognized that the absence of economic justice—or economic democracy—translates into matters about which much of the nation is concerned:

l. Housing: It is axiomatic that the Black, brown and the poor of the country still believe that home ownership is security. And that home ownership is a hallmark of good and responsible citizenship. And we know that home ownership is good for the building industry and thereby improves the condition of the economy. Just about every working person aspires to home ownership.

2. Health: It is fairly clear that good health care is a salable commodity. And that its economic nature places it at the door of those who can afford to pay.

3. Education: History reveals that Black and poor people have always looked to education as one of the sure paths to participation in the American dream. Our ancestors risked life and limb to obtain education for their children, and, for themselves, some exposure to the joy and utilitarian quality of education. Long before Benjamin Roberts sued the city of Boston (in 1849) for equal access to educational resources, Black and poor people have known the value of education.

Power, prestige, political influence, social status and wealth are obtained by birth, gift or through one's personal efforts. And let there be no confusion about it, personal effort means education and training.

There are those who say that the value of an education is on the decline. That is not the case. And unfortunately, the struggle for economic and social justice is in the forefront of those movements which would increase our numbers and percentage in some of the important professional and graduate schools in the country.

M. L. King would have the Black, brown and poor demand the substantive, long-term developmental support from the government's use of our tax dollars; we must organize our own business enterprises, around mutual support rather than mass dependence on the government. We must, finally, face the reality that only we can save ourselves. We must face up to the reality that none of the privileged institutions, individuals or groups which comprise America's power brokers will favor or sponsor changes in our society which are anything more than cosmetic. If we expect those who oppress us to relieve us of the oppression voluntarily, we are mistaken. We are the ones who must change the situation. Our priorities must reflect the needs of our people.

Dr. Walter J. Leonard

Dr. Walter J. Leonard is a distinguished educator and widely published author, a former president of Fisk University and Special Assistant to the President of Harvard University. An eyewitness to one of the most tumultuous periods in recent American history, he was present in the Supreme Court when the Brown v. Board decision was handed down. For the many years following, he remained a friend and confidant of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and today continues to share publicly his humane reflections on the state of race relations in America.

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