On January 21, we will observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in honor of the slain civil rights leader who was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. But this year, 2013, is a significant year for the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and for King’s legacy. 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous speech: I Have a Dream, which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC during the March for Jobs and Freedom in August, 1963.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University, along with 137 leading scholars gave I Have a Dream top honors in the list of 100 best political speeches of the 20th century.
But King was more than a great orator and leader. He was a philosopher and an activist. He fought for human rights, and in the years leading to his death he was beginning to voice his stance against the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. He gave a speech entitled Beyond Vietnam in 1967, and said that when it came to our policy toward Third World countries, the U.S. was on the wrong side of history.
For people the world over who believe in peace and equality, King is one of the great leaders of modern history. He stands with Lincoln and Gandhi, which is no surprise since King modeled his non-violence movement after Gandhi’s own philosophy of non-violence resistance. When he wrote and delivered I Have a Dream, he was inspired by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Yet, despite King’s immense accomplishments, it took almost 20 years after his assassination on April 4, 1968, for his legacy to be honored with a Federal holiday. Ronald Reagan reluctantly signed it into law in 1983, but it was not observed until 1986. And it was no surprise that some states like South and North Carolina initially opposed the holiday and refused to observe it. One of the last states to observe the holiday was, you guessed it, Arizona.
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It has been a long road, and there is still a long road to travel for minorities in the U.S. to truly gain equal rights, and for racism to be completely erased from the American mind. There is no doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. All oppressed people, minorities, Latinos, anyone, in the U.S. and the world can look to him for inspiration. Those of us in the U.S. just need to look at our president. Would Barack Obama have been elected President of the United States had King not marched all over the Southern U.S. to bring attention to civil rights and the injustices suffered by African-Americans? King was jailed, beat, insulted, investigated by the FBI and ultimately killed for what he believed in. He had a dream, and as he said in the speech 50 years ago: “… a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
Despite all the progress, sometimes I still ask myself, are we there yet?