‘We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.'” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most influential activists in modern history, was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., but people believed his message would live on.
On Jan. 15, King would have marked his 76th birthday, but he would hardly recognize the world he left more than 35 years ago. Affirmative action has come and gone.
Title IX has changed the face of high school sports. Integration has slowly changed the faces of athletes, actors, college students, fashionistas and business executives. Black hip-hop culture has become the mainstay of U.S. society. And yet, how far have we really come?
“When Mr. King started his journey for justice, it affected all the minorities,” said Ruben Lopez, president of the civil rights group League of United Latin American Citizens’ Hollister chapter. “But when we sent out bilingual poll workers for this last election, one of them was told he wasn’t needed because they didn’t have any Hispanic voters in that section. (Racism is) still there. It’s done in a very subtle way, but it still exists.”
Henry Sumaya, chair of Hollister’s chapter of the Mexican-American Political Association, agreed. He feels Hispanic workers are suffering a backslide because of Hollister’s building moratorium.
“During the 1960s, we fought for the food stamps, we fought for redistricting, we fought for voting and rights, and we got out to the polls, but it looks like we’re going back to the 1960s,” he said. “We’re at a standstill. We haven’t built anything in three years, and it will be at least 2007 before we get any affordable housing here. We’ve come to a stop, and there’s no creation of jobs, no money running around. I think the civil rights movement is over.”
Lopez feels that Hispanic Americans are still painted into a corner by prejudice and stereotype, an idea that may not be entirely unfounded.
Diane Elia, principal of Eliot Elementary School in Gilroy, reported that the school has been teaching children about dealing respectfully with one another, after teachers noticed some problems with the treatment of non-English speaking students by their peers.
“Beyond just the kids, I think I still have a lot of concerns about adults understanding the importance of heterogeneous classrooms,” said Elia. “Without getting too political, I think we still have some work to do.”
Still, said Elia, King’s legacy holds a powerful message for the children at Eliot, and their teachers are making sure they access his work. Elia has observed second- and fifth-grade classrooms in the last week, and both were reading about King and his message.
“I think his legacy, for me, is really about having equity and everybody having the same opportunities to be successful in life – nobody being held back because of race or personal beliefs,” said Elia.
Hollister principal Bob Hammond, head of Ladd Lane School and pastor of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church added to Elia’s remarks, noting, “We have a school theme of compassion, which actually fits quite well with the legacy of Dr. King. Compassion has to do with self-reliance and self-worth, and it’s very difficult to feel compassionate for others if we don’t feel self-reliant or worthy.
“Sometimes the academic standards forget that it’s about making people feel they can achieve anything. That’s not dumbing down things or just letting people do things. It’s challenging them. It’s letting them work, it’s instilling in them a sense of their own ability and their own ability to achieve things, and that’s what Dr. King really preached.”
That’s the feeling that Erin O’Brien, CEO of Gilroy’s Community Solutions, shares.
“A great deal of the work we do with clients is helping them discover their full potential and their self-worth – to believe in themselves and not be defined by their circumstances,” said O’Brien, whose emergency assistance service reaches out to battered women and those in the community with an immediate need of assistance. “Dr. King’s legacy lives on in the work we do to eliminate injustices such as domestic violence and poverty as well as the lack of access to basic services such as health care, housing and education.”
In the struggle for equal rights, the journey to daylight is long, but at the very least, we have begun.