MLK Birthday: How His Legacy is Still Changing America

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These poignant words from the Declaration of Independence carry great significance for most American citizens. As powerful as these words are, however, they rang hollow for a large group of Americans because of their harrowing experiences for most of the country’s history: women and African Americans. This dark history has brightened considerably in the past 30 years because of the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr., the courageous leader of the movement, played a central role in broadening the scope of American democracy by allowing not only African Americans but other marginalized groups to begin enjoying the full rights of citizenship.

African Americans were relegated to the margins in every aspect of American society for much of the country’s history. They spent centuries in chattel slavery. As slaves, they were completely at the mercy of their masters. They were beaten at the whims of their masters. Slaves were allowed to have spouses and children, but their owners could decide to sell them, their spouses or their children at will. Simply put, in the eyes of their masters, slaves were nothing more than breeders.

The end of slavery in 1865 should have been the start of a new chapter for African Americans. But their nightmare was far from over. After the Reconstruction interregnum, the ensuing decades were as brutal as the pre-civil war era for blacks. The brutality that African Americans was subjected during the Jim Crow era was, in a way, even worse than what they faced during slavery, since blacks were no longer an investment that needed to be protected. Lynching was rampant; thousands of blacks were lynched. Despite these terrible crimes that were perpetrated against their communities, African Americans did not have any recourse, since they faced a very hostile justice system.

Blacks first arrived in America in 1619. After living here for almost four centuries, their roots in the country run deep. Nevertheless, for most of that history, African Americans did not have “any rights that a white man [was] bound to respect” as the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roger B. Taney, put it during the Dred Scott ruling.

Before the advent of the civil rights movement, African Americans were living outside the boundaries of the nation’s laws. They did not have any of the basic rights that their white counterparts took for granted. They did not have the right to vote; they could not hold elected office; they could not eat in many restaurants; they could not rent a room in many hotels nor could they even use many public restrooms. People in all sectors of American society participated in the marginalization of African Americans. 

After their successful effort in keeping them in the dark corners of society, the majority expects that such marginalization would remain a way of life for African Americans. The leaders of the civil rights movement, particularly King, believed otherwise. Indeed, they fashioned a movement that would seek nothing but an end to that apartheid system. To that end, they marched, they had strikes, they held rallies and they went to jail. More importantly, King gave his life in the course of the struggle to end de jure segregation.

America has undergone remarkable changes since the civil rights movement. Post-King America has been a country where African Americans enjoy more freedom than at any time since the first slave ship arrived on the country’s shores almost four centuries ago. African Americans, now, occupy positions in every echelon of the society. They can live in any neighborhood, rent any hotel room, attend any school and aspire to any position either in business or in politics.

King and the movement have become a touchstone for other groups that have yet to enjoy the full benefits of their American citizenship. The civil rights movement gave momentum to the women’s movement. In their quest for equal rights, the leaders of the LGBT movements have found inspiration in the civil rights movement. Hence, all subsequent movements have been heirs to the civil rights movement that King led so valiantly.

The transformation that King set in motion has not merely benefited African Americans. King helped usher in many landmark legislations during the 1960s. With the enactment of laws that ban discrimination based on race, sex and national origin, women and other minority groups have been able to get a seat at the table of American democracy

Through his heroic struggle for equal rights on behalf of African Americans, King helped transform the country. In this new America, the rights of those who used to be relegated to the periphery are more likely to be respected and protected. In this new America, many members of groups that were once marginalized are now playing a dominant role in all aspects of American life. The country has experienced tremendous social changes in the past decades. The ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency is the most salient manifestation of those changes.This emerging society is inching closer to the radical social vision that King set out to achieve. 

Because of the fundamental role he played in helping to reconfigure American society, King’s importance rivals that of the founding fathers. Hence, the designation of civil rights leader does not come close to capture King’s true significance. Because of his contributions in making the country a much “more perfect union,” King has secured a place in the pantheon of Americans that change the course of America.