Today I join my fellow Arizonan’s in marking our state’s 27th commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, honoring one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders. Many younger readers may not be aware that celebrating Martin Luther King Day was once a controversial issue in Arizona. In 1986, Governor Mecham reversed an Executive Order of his predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, honoring King, and instead designated the third Sunday in January as Civil Rights Day. In 1990, Arizona voters rejected an initiative to join the rest of the nation in making the third Monday of January a holiday honoring Dr. King. Amid a great deal of controversy, including a boycott of Arizona by national sports teams, that decision was thankfully corrected two years later, making Arizona the 48th state to make the third Monday of January its official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (New Hampshire was 49th, and Utah in 2000, was last).
Given MLK’s influence on the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, and his status as one of the most admired figures in the world, it is right and just that we honor him today.
As someone long involved with both the law and issues relating to civil rights, along with being an American history buff, I have read many of Dr. King’s speeches, some of which rank among the most important political discourse in our country’s history. I have also read biographies and memoirs by his colleagues in the civil rights movement, including Ralf Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1989) and David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross (1986).
I believe that Dr. King’s greatest contribution to his country and the cause of racial justice was his uncompromising embrace of non-violence. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the provocations were huge. Many institutions in America were still segregated. Racial discrimination and resentment were widespread. As King’s stature rose and his commitment to the civil rights movement deepened, so too did his commitment to pacifism and non-violence as a response to racial oppression. The success of the civil rights movement, particularly the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, would not have happened without public sympathy and support inspired by King’s advocacy of non-violent protest. This alone warrants our deepest respect and King’s place as the foremost civil rights leader of his time.
This country has come a long way towards realizing the dream that Martin Luther King gave voice to. But today, much like King’s world of 50 and 60 years ago, the threat to racial harmony and treating each other like true brothers and sisters comes from those who wish to keep us divided. Back then it was largely ignorance or hate that motivated opponents of equality. Today it is those who profit from division or political movements that seek to divide us and pit Americans against Americans by gender, ethnicity, or race.
That is why any commitment to pursing King’s vision must include a willingness to continue the discussion about racial justice and to listen to each other with patience and understanding, instead of anger and a desire to score points. If we refuse to recognize that daily life presents different challenges for different Americans depending on their ethnicity, and worse still we seek to punish those who would point it out or those who are wanting to openly discuss it, then we block progress and impede our ability as a society to ever make progress on these important issues.
At my age, I know that these problems will not be entirely solved in my lifetime. But the lessons taught me by my clients caught up in the criminal justice system and the things I have witnessed over my decades can be of value as we try to make things better. We have come a long way as a country, much further in fact than most other countries in the world. But it would be naïve to pretend that our work is done. In fact, we have a long way to go to before Dr. King’s dream is fully realized. That’s why it is important that we join together on this national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and his message of non-violence, racial reconciliation and justice for all, and recommit to opening our minds and our hearts, and pursuing truth together.