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Civil Rights Today: Freedom To Succeed, Fail


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today as the nation marks the birthday of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., we decided to spend a good part of the program talking about his legacy. We'll hear excerpts from some of his less well-known but equally important addresses. But equally important, we'll get diverse perspectives about the new frontiers and the fight for social justice.

Later in the program we'll hear from human rights advocate Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, about why she thinks bullying should be considered a human rights issue. And we'll also hear from a scholar about the role he thinks hip-hop is playing in shaping political attitudes. That's all later.

But the first thing we want to do is talk about Dr. King's legacy and the role it plays in our politics today or doesn't. So, we've called upon a diverse group of our regular contributors who we thought would have interesting perspectives on this. Joining us is Kai Wright. He is the editorial director of Colorlines.com. He reports on race, sexuality, and health. Also with us Viviana Hurtado, she's the blogger-in-chief of the site The Wise Latina Club. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and the author of the book, "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." And last but not least, R. Clarke Cooper. He is the executive director of the group Log Cabin Republicans. That is an organization of gay and lesbian members of the GOP. He's also an Army Reserve captain. Welcome to you all and thank you all so much for joining us on this Martin Luther King Day.

KAI WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: To start us off, we thought it was worth remembering or reminding ourselves that although many Americans associate Dr. King with the fight to end institutionalized discrimination against black people in the U.S., his vision was always broader than that. Here's an excerpt from a speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was delivered in 1968 just a couple of days before he died and he had started speaking out in ways that often challenged his political allies on issues like war and poverty. Here it is.


MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

MARTIN: So, let me start by asking each of you what the civil rights movement means to each of you now and if you draw lessons from Dr. King's work. And, Kai, I'll start with you.

WRIGHT: Well, you know, first and foremost, you know, as an African-American, the civil rights movement means I have rights that I didn't have when my parents were children. But I think what's - one of the striking things is, you know, in this past year as we've seen the widespread return of a protest movement over economic justice and Occupy Wall Street. I think that's really resonated to where he left off in the clip we just heard.

MARTIN: Arsalan, how about you?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Well, as a civil rights lawyer, I mean, there's not a day that doesn't go by where I'm not reminded of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. I think that anybody who spends their life trying to make sure that our nation's constitutional and legal principles are upheld for every person regardless of their race, religion, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation, I think that his legacy will continue to live on for centuries.

MARTIN: Well, how does it speak to you specifically? I mean, I'm particularly noting that the title of your book is "Islamic Pacifism." So, is that where you draw the equation from?

IFTIKHAR: Well, of course, I mean, you know, obviously, you know, within the 20th century we had, you know, modern pacifist giants like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King. I think that Dr. King helped bring that non-violent sociopolitical ethos to American shores. Everybody knew about Gandhi in the abstract. But I think that with Dr. King, you know, here we saw an American who brought those principles here stateside and was able to bring about social change through those things. And I think that a lot of people, including myself, are going to use those legacies moving forward.

MARTIN: How about you Viviana Hurtado?

HURTADO: I think about how Dr. King's legacy has really impacted every aspects of my life. I am the daughter of Columbian immigrants who came to this country looking for a better life for their children. And as I look at every aspect of my life through education, through my career, Dr. King's legacy lives and the opportunities that he fought for and that were - that are still continuing to be fulfilled. And because of those opportunities that I was given professionally in my life, through these struggles, he allowed me he gave me the opportunity and the guts and the courage to dare to dream.

MARTIN: How about you Clarke?

R. CLARKE COOPER: This is about the ability to pursue liberty and prosperity in this country. And we, as Americans, have had these ideals that we strive toward. We've been imperfect throughout our history, but those ideals, those visions will remain the same. And we claim to be a meritocracy. We're becoming closer and closer to that. And any barriers toward achieving those goals, and we can succeed or fail, but having those barriers removed and letting one's individual liberty and their individual responsibility allow them to succeed or fail. And so, Dr. King's legacy for everyone is to have that ability to succeed or fail.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News on this Martin Luther King Junior Day.

We're taking a look at King's legacy and his influence on our politics today with a diverse panel of guests who all have some connection to the civil rights movement or who work in civil rights today.

But, Clarke, talk a little bit if you would about how you see the connection between your work and Dr. King's work? I mean, as you know that there are some people who take issue with the idea of comparing, you know, the civil rights struggle from African-Americans or people some racial and ethnic group with the question of sexual orientation.

COOPER: Sure. Well there are corollaries and, let's be fair, there are differences. There are, you know, average gay American doesn't have - they're not encumbered by their orientation to, they're not allowed to vote. There's no poll tax. There's no literacy test for gay Americans. In fact, your basic civil rights are there. There is an issue regarding human rights being denied access or privileges, sure. But to equate the barriers that existed for an entire population solely on race being denied basic civil rights is very different. I can totally appreciate the differences as to why some would say they're not the same because they're not.

MARTIN: Kai, I do want to go back to something you talked about earlier, the whole question of the fight or attention to poverty. Toward the end of his life, Dr. King started spending a lot more time talking about questions of poverty and equal opportunity. This is him again at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. This was in March of 1968, and here it is.


JR.: We read one day - we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain alienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn't have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty and the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

MARTIN: Now, Kai, I'm interested in this because there are people at the time within the civil rights movement who thought that this was a distraction and that this would just muddy the message. And, in fact, Dr. King spoke of this but he felt as well - he explained what he thought. So, Kai, I'm interested in your take on this since you raised the whole question of a parallel to the Occupy movement today?

WRIGHT: Yeah. And I mean, so this and on the war. But by that point in his career, folks did not want him to start muddying the picture. I mean, he felt that the picture is already muddied, right? That all of these things are tied together and you can't address one without addressing the others. And I think that's important to think about today.

His central analysis on economic justice was that racism is a tool of theft. So, one of his great quotes - and I'll mingle it - was that if it can be said that the slave owner took freedom and gave the black man the Bible, the Southern aristocracy took everything and gave the white man Jim Crow. And I think we can see that...

MARTIN: Arsalan Iftikhar, what do you think about that?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think, you know, what we always try to teach people in terms of civil rights is the protection of the civil rights of one American is the protection of the civil rights of all Americans.

So if you go back to Brown versus the Board of Education, a seminal landmark Supreme Court case, which was about a young 7-year-old girl in Topeka, Kansas who was not allowed to go to school. Well, that legal precedence set the stage and the legal precedent for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination of any kind.

So people like Clarke, myself, Viviana are protected by the rights that were afforded to us by the plight of people that might not look anything like us or shared demographic features. And that's why it's important to keep in mind that, you know, whether it's gay rights, whether it's, you know, the rights of ethnic minorities in America today, that civil rights as we know it in America is something that should transcend all national ethnic, religious and sexual orientation boundaries.

MARTIN: But Clarke, I want to ask you, though, as a conservative, because your group is largely conservative.

COOPER: Well, we are. We're an ancillary group of the Republican Party. Yes.

MARTIN: Right. So I'm interested in how you interpret - how you would interpret, from your values perspective, Dr. King's insistence that it can't just be about, you know, race and ethnicity. It also has to be about economic fairness.

COOPER: From a conservative standpoint, what ties into social justice, so to speak, would be removing certain barriers that may be tied with government regulation for, say, a small businessman or a woman. Having that freedom, that flexibility to be able, again, to succeed or to fail.

And so this is why there are - Dr. King included - Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman. This is why there's a historic line of black Republicans out there who actually did take the view of - well, not everyone's going to be in lockstep on what that definition is, on what is access to social justice.

MARTIN: Is that your sly way of reminding us that Dr. King was a registered Republican?

COOPER: Yes, he was.


HURTADO: And, you know, I just wanted to...

MARTIN: Viviana...

HURTADO: ...to jump in here and say, you know, what's the beauty of Dr. King's legacy and words is how elastic they are. I mean, think about everybody who's participating in this conversation and all that we bring to it. I think about how it is that the dream that he dispended and that he represented is not his dream. It's not the dream of the civil rights movement. It's not the dream of African-Americans. It's all of our dream.

COOPER: Right.

HURTADO: And I think about, you know, going back to the whole poverty and inequality question today. Six months ago, we weren't talking about poverty and inequality. It's because of the Occupy Wall Street movement that we're talking about it and it's a movement that's incredibly complicated; leaderless, faceless. Some people would say smelly.

But one thing that is for sure is we've got the largest gap in inequality that we've had in generation in the Latino community, in particular between 2008 and 2010. The Latino household wealth went down 66 percent and more Latino children are living in poverty than any other group of kids from other ethnic or racial groups.

This is nothing but a call and a rally to action to continue pressing forward with Dr. Martin Luther King's dream.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue this discussion of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. with our diverse group of panelists, all of them regulars on this program. Please, stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.