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Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Message Abdus Sattar Ghazali
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Monday, January 19 marks the Martin Luther King Day to celebrate the life and contributions of a great social peacemaker and iconic civil rights leader. This year the MLK Day has special significance. It falls on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration as the first African-American President of the United States.

Obama's historic victory as the 44th US president is perhaps a realization of Martin Luther King's famous speech "I have a dream." Forty-five years ago Martin Luther King had a dream of an America where men and women would be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. By electing the first African-American President, America has turned that dream into a reality.

King's address was delivered on August 28, 1963, on the occasion of the March on Washington for Civil Rights. The march took place against the background of racial unrest and violence. The year 1963 was eventful in the struggle for civil rights. In June, King and 125,000 persons marched in a "Freedom Walk" in Detroit. The bloody events of Birmingham in the spring of 1963 had convinced President Kennedy that federal legislation was needed to advance the civil rights of blacks. On June 11, he introduced a bill to bring an end to discrimination in public accommodations, and in a nationally televised speech he defined "the heart of the question" as "whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated." Senator James Eastland of Mississippi said that Kennedy's legislation amounted to "a complete blueprint for a totalitarian state." The bill that Kennedy submitted to Congress was ultimately passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Despite the impression given by the popular celebrations associated with MLK holiday, his legacy was perhaps not captured fully by his famous "I Have a Dream" speech delivered at the Washington march for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. In that speech King appealed to the moral consciousness of America, expressing his hope for an equal and equitable society, which he viewed as achievable at that time. However, in later years, confronted with the depth of the oppressive segregation of Northern ghettos, the nagging intransigence of the poverty confronting both blacks and whites in the rural south, and the blatant hypocrisies of the establishment, highlighted by the war in Viet Nam, King articulated a far broader vision, encompassing an analysis and severe criticism not only of the role of the United States in the world, but of the very nature of our economic system. This vision was articulated most powerfully in Martin Luther King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967.  While Dr. King was speaking about Vietnam, his words resonate down to us today:

"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.....

"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.....

"Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain." A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.....

"Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us."

MLK believed that "if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth."

He lived one more year after his Vietnam speech. In April 1968 He was gunned down on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. where he had gone to lead the black sanitation workers' strike. He was only 39 years old when he was assassinated.

He was murdered just before he launched his next great march on Washington, which he referred to as the march of the poor and the oppressed, and the marchers he was organizing were both black and white, who were impoverished and unemployed.

His tangible accomplishments are countless including a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. MLK led the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 which is credited with launching the Civil Rights Movement in the last century which culminated in eventual passage of the Civil Right Act. And he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Within a span of 13 years from 1955 to his death in 1968 he was able to expound, expose, and extricate America from many wrongs. His tactics of protest involved non-violent passive resistance to racial injustice. He firmly believed that nonviolence was a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. "It is a sword that heals."

But MLK's legacy goes much deeper. He did more to bridge race relations than probably any voice in history. He spent his entire life fighting for the equality of all races and was honored with the Noble Peace Prize in 1964 for his fight for equal rights. His greatest achievement was his ability to help American's appreciate diversity.

The election of Obama as the first African-American President though fulfils MLK's dream that one day his children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. However, there is a long way to achieve his goal of declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.
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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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