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Remembering Martin Luther King

Kamaria Porter | Monday, January 26, 2004

The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. means a great deal to me. Even as a child, I can remember celebrating his birthday, reading his speeches and learning about his life. While we continue to celebrate him yearly, I feel that our nation has forgotten his true message.As a true global citizen, Dr. King’s vision for social change encompassed many facets of human existence. For civil rights, Dr. King wanted African-Americans to have true citizenship – with the full dignity to participate equally in every aspect of society. Hatred for blacks poisoned American life across the board. The segregation Dr. King saw touched issues of housing, education, administration of justice, employment and health. Dr. King saw poverty not as an unfortunate social condition, but a violation of a person’s human rights. He recognized systemic causes in the plight of the poor and planned to use the tools of nonviolent protest to demand income redistribution and societal restructuring.Dr. King objected and spoke against the United States’ campaign in Vietnam. Dr. King declared U.S. military action exacerbated poverty domestically and abroad. In 1967, he described the actions of American soldiers in Vietnam as a struggle “on the side of the wealthy and secure” that created “a hell for the poor.”As a religious person, Martin Luther King saw his social action tied to the Christian mission. As a religious leader, he used stirring sermons to motivate and teach others. He also expressed his faith by being ultimately concerned with the living conditions of all God’s people. King preached love – a tremendous and uplifting force for social transformation.To the labor movement, Dr. King joined the fight of Memphis sanitation workers. On strike due to poor working conditions, low wages and disrespect stemming from intense racism, 1,300 African-American sanitation workers mobilized wearing signs proclaiming “I Am a Man.” Dr. King saw this labor struggle in 1968 tied with the new direction he wanted to take the Civil Rights Movement. Using the tools of collective action and non-violent resistance, King wanted to start a mass action to end poverty for all Americans. In March 1968, King declared to Memphis workers and sympathizers, “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” A month later, King returned to Memphis to lead a march and delivered his famous and prophetic speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The next day, April 4, 1968 his great light and moral witness was extinguished by an assassin’s bullet. Today we find ourselves in an era of domestic and international injustice. Using Dr. King’s legacy, I see many ways we can turn this tide. We must safeguard affirmative action to equalize opportunities of minorities in light of income and structural inequities that persist. Additionally, we should make education a national priority, not by imposing cold test standards, but by funding in-school professional development for teachers, repairing schools, providing children with better books and giving great educators money to invest in the classroom and their own well-being. We must end U.S. military imperialist actions abroad and work with other nations to find a better way to combat violence. Instead of being, as Dr. King said, “strange liberators,” the United States needs to contemplate the roots of anti-American sentiment and readjust our national goals. As Christians, we must embrace the unsettling challenge of the crucifixion and go beyond orthodoxy and prayer to be active citizens working against violence, hate and economic inequity. President George W. Bush’s reign of fear, militarism, exclusionary nationalism and privilege for the ruling class must end this year.We need to remember the American legacy of oppression of African-Americans and stop the same assaults on human dignity that are used against homosexuals. All people, no matter their sexual orientation, must not be discriminated against in any element of life- employment, expression and building a family.Finally, at Notre Dame, something has to be done. There is a place in me that likes it here, yet a larger, more substantial part of me cries out for a change in our community. We must engage in more open discussion of issues that matter. Students need to move beyond service and open their privileged eyes to see the many ways their consumer-driven existence makes people around the world poor. We must acknowledge the dignity of our campus workers with a just wage and a voice in their workplace. Dr. King once said, “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” I agree that such a creed is the only way to exist fully. Dr. King showed us the way to make our lives extraordinary by speaking truth to power and living with love saturated in words and deeds. Now, more than ever, we need to follow his example.

Kamaria Porter is a sophomore history major and wants to thank her family and friends for a great 20th birthday. Her column appears every other Tuesday. Contact her at kporter@nd.edu. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.