When an assassin’s bullet cut short the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the bullet did not kill the peacemaker’s dream.
Exactly 40 years later, many of Dr. King’s visions for African Americans have been realized. But depending on whom you ask, the dream, born out of a nightmare, is slowly transforming lopsided laws into fair and equitable policies for all mankind.
A 30-minute ceremony to commemorate the life of Dr. King is scheduled for this morning at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. Board members and staff will give testimonials about the impact of Dr. King’s assassination, then and now.
There will also be a candlelight memorial service for King at 6 tonight in Liberty City.
“There are some things that I can do today, that I could not do back in the day,” said Barbara Howard, Florida Chair for the Congress on Racial Equality. “If not for Dr. King, we would still be living under Jim Crow laws.”
Howard, who lives in North Miami Beach, is also president and CEO of Barbara Howard & Associates, a public relations, marketing and lobbying firm.
The savvy image maker, who is originally from Hurtsboro, Alabama, said Dr. King’s quest to bring about change originally faced opposition from within the black community.
“The grown black folks were saying that he was going to get us in trouble,” said Howard, remembering growing up in the Deep South. “It took the young folk, students, who said that we were going to do this.”
Those students helped bring about tremendous change. Many were a part of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee. They were the first to conduct lunch counter sit-ins.
Included in the group were leaders such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.
Their actions helped strengthen the movement to bring about social change.
“The degree to which there has been change is a phenomenal one,” said Howard, who is also a South Florida Times columnist. “Are there people who are still racists in this country?
Yes. There was and always will be. Dr. King used to say, ‘You can’t legislate feeling, but you can legislate behavior.’”
Half full? Or half empty?
While Howard sees the glass as half full, there are others who view the glass as half empty.
Take, for example Max Rameau, a local community activist in Miami, who feels that blacks have been successful in staving off segregation, but have not advanced in other important ways.
“Dr. King was able to wipe away the first layer of dust,” said Rameau, who is with Take Back the Land and CopWatch, two divisions of the Washington, D.C.-based agency Center for
Pan African Development. “If you think of the issue as segregation, then we have made progress because there is no more segregation. But if you think of the issue as land, then we have not made any more progress on many, many fronts.”
Rameau is one of the key coordinators of a shanty town built on the corner of Northwest 17th Avenue and 62 Street (also known as Martin Luther King Blvd.) in Miami’s Liberty City last year. That temporary fix for the working homeless was leveled after a mandate from the city commission.
“I think that the direction that King was going with the poor people’s campaign was a good one. He was advocating universal healthcare and emphasizing social justice,” he said.
Rameau, who has studied the life of Dr. King, is vocal about many of the dreamer’s methods to bring about change. One in particular was his non-violent movement.
“Nonviolence is a tactic, not a principle,” said Rameau. “I think King made a major error of elevating a tactic as a principle. A good number of people who say that we should practice nonviolence, don’t actually practice it themselves. Notice, whenever there is a parade, it is led by a color guard with rifles or police with guns.’’
Rameau continued, “No one is telling Bush to be nonviolent in Iraq, and no one is telling the police to be nonviolent in respect to dealing with us. Take, for example the incident at Edison High School recently. The students were having a nonviolent protest, but the police responded with violence.”
Gains in politics
King’s nonviolence debate rages on. Forty years after his demise, every segment of his dream has been analyzed, reviewed, and examined. While some may feel that African Americans have made moderate progress on some fronts, the results clearly reveal positive gains in the political arena.
“Politically, we have made great strides with people in very high places,” said Linda Johnson, 5th vice president of the Florida Conference of Branches of NAACP. “Some people may downplay U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but you have to look at who she is and what she does. We also have a qualified candidate running for president,” said the South Bay, Florida resident, referring to Sen. Barack Obama.
Johnson is encouraged by the sophistication of many African Americans, who have taken the fight for change to a different level.
“Society plays a major role in our existence. We do have many challenges, but I think we have gotten to the point where we are taking our fight to the boardroom and conference room,” she said.
Around the conference tables these days are many people born of different hues. According to attorney Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Miami, that is the way Dr. King would have wanted it.
“I think that the legacy of Dr. King is that his struggle included all people,” said Rodriguez-Taseff, a partner in the law firm of Duane Morris LLP, who lives in Miami Beach. “It is about taking care of human beings and making sure that we provide them with the dignity and justice and opportunity that they deserve.’’
She continued, “Race is still important, but what you are seeing is activists coming together to discuss housing, the elderly and education. It is disbanding race and class.”
Fort Lauderdale attorney Levi Williams, a partner in the law firm of Fertig & Gramling, said black people have made significant progress since King’s death, particularly in the areas of information technology, medicine and politics, but have not yet achieved their full potential.
“I think if I was to look at it, African Americans stand about mid-mountain,’’ Williams said. “We have yet to get to the top of the mountain. A lot of it is our fault. A lot of the gains that we have made are a testament to the strength of our people both in spirit and in mind. However, we still have to shed the shackles of our own mental slavery.’’
Supporting black businesses
One South Floridian who works tirelessly to keep Dr. King’s dream alive is Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference NAACP. She has long had a seat at the table, trying to keep a leveled playing field for African Americans and all people of color.
“Every year, I say the same thing over and over again: ‘The dream has not been realized and we have a long way to go.’ That is the easy answer,” said Nweze. “The question is, how do we work in this day and this time to help reach more of the dream? If we understood who we were as a people, we would then begin to act like a people. We would shop from one another and we would support our doctors, lawyers, our stores, and our restaurants.”
Growing up in Overtown, Nweze remembers when African Americans patronized each other’s businesses and took pride in their surroundings.
“The black communities ought to look a lot different from the way that they do. That was a part of Dr. King’s dream, too,” she said.
“The bottom line is we wouldn’t need an NAACP if Dr. King’s dream were a reality. I’m not sure if that will happen in my lifetime, because as a people, we are still struggling with vestiges,” Nweze said.
Photo by Jim Kerlin. AP Photo
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. looks at a glass door of his rented beach cottage in St. Augustine. An unknown person shot into the door on June 5, 1964. King took time out from conferring with St. Augustine civil rights leaders to inspect the house, which was vacant at the time of the shooting.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Commemoration of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination
WHEN: Friday, April 4, 2008, 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: Florida Memorial University, Lou Rawls Center for the Performing Arts, Outdoor Plaza, 15800 NW 42 Avenue, Miami Gardens
COST: Free and open to the public
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The 7th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Candlelight Memorial Service. The service will feature a unity march, an appearance by Miami NAACP President Victor Curry, and gospel music performances by the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Byron Cage.
WHEN: 6 p.m. tonight, Friday, April 4, 2008
WHERE: Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (Northwest 62nd Street) and Northwest 7th Avenue in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood.
CONTACT: For more information, contact 305-757-7652.