Happy Birthday, Dr. King: The Urgent Need For A New Civil Rights Movement


As one whose life was positively and profoundly impacted by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the national holiday honoring King's life and legacy has particular relevance for me and millions of my fellow baby boomers. This hard-won federal holiday was the culmination of 15 years of passionate and persistent advocacy by members of Congress, civil rights activists, student leaders, and entertainers, among other groups. Internationally acclaimed recording artist and activist, Stevie Wonder, played a monumental role in keeping alive the demand for the King Holiday. In 1981, Stevie released one of his most popular recordings ever, "Happy Birthday," a song in which he made the case for establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual holiday.

Much to the surprise of many, it was President Ronald Reagan who signed the MLK holiday legislation into law on November 2, 1983, nearly two years after being sworn in as the 40th president of the United States. Reagan, like his Republican predecessors and successors, did not enjoy the support of large numbers of black voters. Despite his reluctance, many political analysts at the time opined that his decision to support the King birthday legislation was driven in part by a desire to signal to the Black community, moderate whites, and others of goodwill, that he was committed to being the president of all Americans. Although Reagan signed the King Holiday legislation and appointed the first woman, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, to the U. S. Supreme Court, in my view, his opposition to the 1965 Voting Rights Act set in motion an array of state voter suppression legislation that continues to this very day.

On January 16, the third Monday of January, our nation will pause to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Network television stations will broadcast spellbinding excerpts from King's speeches and show old black and white film clips from his marches, while newspaper columnists, talk show hosts, and editorial writers will hold forth on the significance of King's contributions more than 50 years ago.
On January 20th, a mere 4 days after this year's MLK celebration, Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. This is the same person who called Barack Obama "The worst president in U. S. history," and who spoke derisively about immigrants, Muslims, women, and the disabled, all the while heaping praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin, and rejecting the findings from America's intelligence community, which concluded that the Russians sought to impact the outcome of the 2016 presidential election he won. While the precise impact of Russia's hacking activities may never be fully known, denying or ignoring that it happened is anathema to the freedom that all Americans enjoy, regardless of political affiliation.

This year will mark the first time ever that I will not participate in the public MLK holiday celebration. Instead, I will devote my day to working with a multi-racial group of baby boomers, millennials, and others who are committed to making sure we do everything humanly possible to ensure alignment between our actions and the aspirations articulated by Dr. King in what is arguably one of the all-time most significant speeches of the past century, "I Have a Dream." Although it is too late for this year, it is my hope that in 2018, colleges, universities, and communities around the country will forego traditional MLK celebrations anchored by high profile speakers who command hefty fees, in favor of traditional teach-ins to better acquaint students, faculty-staff, and alumni with the details of Dr. King's dream -- and what we can do individually and collectively to make his dream a reality.

As President-Elect Trump prepares to assume the mantle of leadership, I believe it is essential that all equity-loving people declare a "time out," in order to design and pursue a new civil rights movement -- one that is responsive to the realities of the challenges we face in the 21st century.

Our new civil rights movement must build its foundation on seven basic elements:

1) Providing accessible and high quality healthcare
2) Reversing voter suppression
3) Establishing a livable, rather than a minimum, wage
4) Reducing access to guns and the ensuing violence
5) Improving the quality of public education over the promises of charter schools
6) Improving eldercare and care for the most vulnerable among us
7) Preventing environmental degradation and promoting environmental justice.

In "Happy Birthday," Stevie Wonder sang, "Some cannot see, the dream as clear as he," yet this in no way means that Dr. King's dream of peace and unity should be forsaken. The best way we can honor him is by creating an action plan for a new civil rights movement of which he would be proud. Now is the time to forego euphoric rhetoric and instead come together, roll up our sleeves, and make this dream -- our dream -- a reality.