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The Carletonian

King’s message resonates in modern politics

<rtin Luther King Jr. is one of the most influential figures in 20th century American history. This assertion rang true for many members of the Carleton community that gathered in the Skinner Memorial Chapel in remembrance of the chief spokesman for the nonviolent civil rights movement, as well as in other honorary movements and celebrations around the nation.

At Carleton, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Candlelight Service of Celebration and Remembrance featured guest speaker Reverend Oliver White of Grace Community Church in St. Paul. White, who marched with Dr. King in Detroit, is a veteran of the civil rights movement.

White was a key advocate in the integration of racially separated church congregations, which occurred seventeen years ago in St. Paul. Today, members of the congregations sit side by side as old friends. With racial segregation not far in the past, White echoed King’s sentiments when he said, “This is just a dent in the wall of segregation. But if you put enough dents in it, it will crumble…Every time we do this, we get closer to understanding what Martin Luther King’s dream is about.”

Carleton’s service honoring Dr. King also included performances by the a capella groups Intertwining Melodies and Carleton Singing Knights. At the same time, across campus at Freedom House, the Office of Intercultural sponsored a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner and Reflections.
“Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers Americans an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to eradicating racism in all its forms,” said Thomas Bowden, an analyst at the Ayn Rand Institute.

Under King’s leadership, members of the American civil rights movement effectively protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. King, a Baptist minister, held one of the few leadership roles available to African American men during the 1950s and 1960s. He became a civil rights activist early in his career, leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. He helped found the Southern Christian Leadership conference in 1957 and served as its first president.

In the milestone year of 1963, King led the March on Washington, where he delivered the infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, raising public consciousness and becoming renowned as one of the greatest orators in American history. In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, nominated for his efforts to stop segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and non-violent means.

In 1968, King was shot at his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, after other failed assassination attempts. Three hundred thousand supporters attended his funeral. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and a Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
Martin Luther King Day, which celebrates King’s birthday on January 15, 1929, was originally promoted by labor unions in contract negotiations. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating a federal holiday to honor King, but only after Congress passed a veto-proof majority. In 1990, President George Bush Sr. signed an extension bill, making the holiday into a month-long celebration.

Throughout the 1990s, New Hampshire, Arizona, and South Carolina refused to observe Martin Luther King Day. In 1992, the NFL boycotted the Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona when the state did not pass a proposition to recognize the holiday. South Carolina was the last state to recognize the day as a paid holiday for all state employees in 2000. Prior to that date, employees could choose between celebrating Martin Luther King day or one of three confederate holidays.

Strong objections to Martin Luther King Day still arise, as in Louisiana Monday, when 25 white supremacists marched to protest the holiday. Demonstrators, organized by the Mississippi-based, “pro-majority” Nationalist Movement, called for the holiday to be abolished and demanded harsh justice for the “Jena 6,” six African American students who beat a white classmate in a racially charged incident in 2006.

The Nationalist Movement drew an opposition protest of approximately 250 people that were much more vocal in the confrontation. One hundred and fifty police officers kept the opposing protesters apart. “I think it’s very disrespectful,” Latara Hart, an 18 year-old resident of Jena, said of the Nationalist Movement.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama became involved in the charged climate, casting support behind King and claiming that his work paved the way for this year’s ground-breaking candidacies. The three candidates rallied outside of the South Carolina state capitol on Martin Luther King Day, seeking support from African Americans. The next battleground for Democratic candidates in the presidential race will be South Carolina, where more than half of the primary voters on Saturday will be African American.

In the modern political setting, Clinton referred to King’s past political efforts at knocking down social barriers and bringing justice to those who live on the margins. “Let us just take a moment to marvel at the progress we have made together,” Clinton said at her rally. “But he work is far from finished. The dream is not yet fulfilled.”

Bowden stated that the achievement of a truly color-blind society will require not only that private individuals reject racism, but also that government policies and programs cease to favor some citizens over others based on skin color.

“In a famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently envisioned a world without racism: ‘I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,’” Bowden said. “Americans should be proud of their nation’s historical achievements in ending slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregated schools, and many other forms of institutionalized racism. On this holiday, we should embrace the challenge contained in King’s eloquent remarks and recommit ourselves to the task of fully eradicating racism from this nation’s public policies.”

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