Civil rights leader King’s slaying echoes 40 years after

March 31st, 2008 - 10:19 am ICT by admin  

By Anne K. Walters
Washington, March 31 (DPA) Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr, who had become the face of the civil rights movement, was struck down by a sniper at age 39 as he stepped out of a hotel for a breath of air during a labour strike in Memphis, Tennessee. The April 4, 1968, assassination triggered country-wide race riots in which more than 40 people died and neighbourhoods were destroyed.

Today, every US school child may know King’s name, and his birthday is an official US holiday, but the racial issues with which he grappled are far from settled, casting their shadow into presidential politics and larger society.

Nonetheless, the prospect that America could elect its first black president, Barack Obama, in November has electrified the US political scene and bears witness to the radical changes in a society that once practised apartheid in many of its states.

King led efforts to end laws prohibiting blacks from using the same facilities as whites, enlisting thousands in non-violent marches and sit-ins to halt the segregation laws that kept blacks and whites separated at schools, restaurants, public buildings and buses across the South.

The protest propelled King to the forefront of the civil rights movement that, through intervention by courts, Congress and state legislatures, integrated schools, secured voting rights and opened up services to African Americans.

Much of the progress was embedded in the Civil Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

King’s powerful speeches are recalled on the January holiday that bears his name. Funds are being raised for a King monument alongside those of US presidents on Washington’s National Mall - where he gave his most famous speech, “I have a dream”, in 1963 during the famed march on Washington.

The advances in racial relations since the 1960s have not erased inequality. African Americans make up about 13 percent of the population, but many face disparities in income and education, and about 25 percent live in poverty, US Census Bureau figures show.

Young black men have a tough time finding jobs, and make up a disproportionate percentage of the country’s prison population.

Race still permeates US politics, surfacing in the presidential campaign, where Obama hopes to get the Democratic party nomination, and in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, which laid bare the poverty of a black community unable to escape rising flood waters.

In a speech reflecting on King’s legacy, civil rights activist and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson cited inequalities in life expectancies, drug crime sentencing and educational attainment as issues that still need to be addressed.

The US needs to move on to the “unfinished business of civil rights - which is civil equality”, he said. “Our goal was never just freedom. Freedom was the necessary prerequisite to get to equality.”

Obama in mid-March had to address concerns about his minister, who made racially charged remarks suggesting Democratic party rival Hillary Clinton could not relate to African Americans because she had never been called by a racial epithet.

A prominent Clinton supporter was forced to give up her role in the campaign after suggesting Obama had benefited from his race, and the former first lady received flak for suggesting that King’s advances would not have been possible without the political aid of president Johnson.

In a speech aimed at distancing himself from his minister, Obama pointed to the “complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through”.

He noted the country seems to be in a “racial stalemate”, in which white Americans need to acknowledge “that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people, that the legacy of discrimination and current incident of discrimination … are real and must be addressed”.

At the end of his life, King himself seemed resigned to the fact that he would not live to see the fruits of his efforts, but believed there would be success.

In a speech supporting striking sanitation workers the night before he died, King said it would not matter if he lived to see racial equality.

“I’ve seen the promised land,” King bellowed to the cheering crowd. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

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