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19 January 2010

It is now the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and everyone is going back to their lives, to school, to work.

I can still hear the echo of people I went to high school with as well as other people from my hometown asking begrudgingly (though not too much, because they did get the day off) why everything stops for a day in mid-January for a Black man (though that’s not the word they use) who got killed; this had absolutely nothing to do with them. There was only ever one or two African-American families in my rural mountain hometown and the majority of them had lived there since their Scots-Irish ancestors settled the area when it was considered the “frontier”, and so in a way, they are right. The specific case of Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t have a whole lot to do with them. Segregation was not an issue in this area because there have never been any Black people there; the people couldn’t have afforded slaves in the ante bellum period if they had wanted them and Black people seemed to simply have no interest hiking up the mountains to settle.

People are wont to think of us in this post-Civil Rights Movement world as doing pretty well in the area of race. After all, we do have a Black president, right? Excusing the fact that President Obama’s African roots come directly from Kenya and don’t pass through the centuries of slavery and discrimination most Black people’s forebears had to trod, ok, sure. But racism is not dead. Not even close. Martin Luther King’s dream was not that Blacks have the right to vote, to intermarry, to play basketball and whip the white boys around them, but that our nation become colorblind. “Judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

I think if he were to see our nation today, he would be extremely disappointed. We have failed his legacy. Inequality is more rampant today than ever. The numbers of poor people increase daily. African-Americans still live ridiculously disadvantaged lives. People that think that Affirmative Action is outdated need to walk into their nearest prestigious university Admissions Office and notice where the Black people are; at UNC, excluding two, their offices are downstairs in the basement, out of sight and perhaps out of mind, at least to visitors. Other racial groups are falling to the same fate: Latinos, Middle Easterners and North Africans, South Asians.

And then there is the gay issue, with laws like the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 which allow for the majority to vote on the rights of the minority, just as Jim Crow laws did during Segregation. People are still being disenfranchised, stripped of their rights for identities which are out of their control, which they did not choose. No more can someone choose to be gay than they can choose to be Black. But even more importantly, these identities (for the vast majority) shouldn’t matter…content of their character, content of their character, content of their character.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is relevant for those people from my hometown because some of them are Latino, some of them are South Asian, and (statistically) a whole bunch of them are gay. His dream is still invigorating and challenging, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to be caught up in the specifics and give in to the temptation of saying “Mission: Accomplished” too soon. We owe it, if not the Martin Luther King, Jr., but to ourselves to not allow the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. day to become a return to the status quo. I have a dream. Do you?

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