I was one year old when Martin Luther King Jr. died, so I can’t really say that I knew him when. Growing up as a Filipino American in the America of the 1970s and 1980s, though, he was still a presence in my life. I saw a lot of excerpts of his “I Have a Dream” speech playing on t.v. and his words gave me this feeling that this was a man to be respected and admired. Spending my early childhood in military bases, where I played with kids of many different races and religions, I never experienced any racism or prejudice, so the injustices that King talked about seemed like something from long ago. It wasn’t until my Dad retired in 1979 and we had to live in public housing that I encountered racism of any sort and it was a shock to me. When I heard the “I Had A Dream” excerpts on t.v. that year, it gave me the first appreciation of what King was fighting against.
I began to really think more about Dr. King when U2 came out with the song Pride (In the Name of Love). At that time, a big debate was going on about the passing of a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. I remember being flabergasted by some of the arguments of opponents of the holiday, the accusations of King being a communist and a minor figure in history. I checked out from the library some biographies of King and the more I got to know King, the more I admired him. King had his faults, like all human beings do. But he was courageous in his belief of nonviolent change, especially in the late 1960s when the movement for equal rights began to turn towards the more militant philosophies of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers. His idea that the fight for equal rights meant redeeming the oppressor as well as the oppressed made a lot of sense to me.
The big influence on my admiration for King was the series Eyes on the Prize, a PBS documentary that aired in the late 1980s. It put King’s contributions in the context of the larger struggle for civil rights. I learned about the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the fight to desegregate the schools, the work of student groups like SNCC and CORE and African American churches, the protest demonstrations in Selma and Birmingham. Through it all, I admire King’s perserverance, and the risks he took in challenging first the South and it’s segregationist society, and later Lyndon Johnson and his war in Vietnam. The greatest successes of King and the early Civil Rights movement was in pushing JFK and LBJ to pass civil rights legislation for political equality. When King and the civil rights activists began focusing to the north and the problems of urban ghettos, they had less success. King began to equate full equal rights with the need for a fuller economic justice, and at the time that he died, he was organizing a poor people’s march on Washington D.C.
Another program that influenced me during the 1980s was a one hour PBS program on a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. They debated each other’s ideas, and when I look at it now, it’s a good example of the influence and interdependence of moderates and radicals. I think both men influenced each other: after Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca in 1964, he began to move closer to King’s idea of whites and blacks living together in peace; in the late 1960s King began moving towards Malcolm’s ideas of the economic system needing a more radical restructuring to resolve the problems of the slums.
When we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day, we shouldn’t just celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. King was a great American but he didn’t achieve the things that he did in a vaccuum. King greatly benefitted from the work that came before him, from the work of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, the litigation work of the National Association of the Advencement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the writings of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. King fought for civil rights with contemporaries like Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, Marian Edelman Wright, Malcolm X, and Stokeley Carmichael. If we are to remember King’s achievements, we have to remember groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress on Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As an Asian American, I deeply appreciate the opportunities that I have now because of the struggles that King and all these other people had to force America to live up to its highest values. For that I am deeply grateful.