Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 91 years old this past week.
A man who preached peace and equality through non-violent protest, who received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and who spoke out forthrightly against the Vietnam War, died in a most violent way when he was shot by an assassin at the age of 39 in 1968.
Since his death, and in remembering him annually on the third Monday of January, Americans will discuss and debate where the nation now stands on racial and economic equality. There is no debate, however, when it comes to King’s impact on the civil rights movement.
“He (King) inspired the model for the successful expansion of civil rights, including the LGBTQ,” said Vito Imbasciani MD, secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs and member of the LGBTQ community. “It remains a model. That never really changes.”
Unfortunately, real change doesn’t happen quickly. For 17 years, LGBTQ individuals served in the military under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” until President Obama ended the practice in 2011. And17 years is abbreviated compared to some other civil rights movements.
Women didn’t get the right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Native Americans became U.S citizens in 1924, but many states still stopped them from voting until 1957.
Congress ratified the 15th Amendment in 1870, in theory prohibiting the federal government or states from denying or abridging any citizen’s right to vote based upon “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Southern states used loopholes including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other methods to prevent African Americans from voting. In March 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led marches in Selma, Alabama to protest Selma’s record of using violence to prevent African Americans from voting. Shortly after the marches, the Voting Act of 1965, which made discriminatory voting practices illegal, was signed into law. It was only then that most African Americans were able to register to vote in the South.
Baseball’s major leagues remained white-only from the late 1800s until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and a year later President Truman desegregated the U.S. military.
Fast-forward to 2009, when Barack Obama, became the first African American sworn in as President of the United States.
But it was the civil rights movement in the 1960s – and the non-violent protests led by Dr. King, Julian Bond, John Lewis and others – that fostered change in America on many fronts.
A gauge of progress? The National Guard was called upon to quell riots in some states after King’s death nearly 52 years ago.
This weekend, at the National Guard’s Service Member of the Year banquet in San Diego, several young soldiers offered their thoughts on King in a video presentation produced for the event.
“He was a champion and a voice – a voice of folks that didn’t have a voice,” one soldier said in the video.
“He symbolizes the ability of peaceful protest in our nation,” another said. “I think it’s one of the specific holidays representing an individual who fought for those freedoms and rights; and King set the framework for the kinds of demonstrations we see today when we get things done.”
Likewise, King’s message resonates among veterans living at the Veterans Home of California-Ventura, said Julian Bond, the CalVet Home’s administrator, who was named after his cousin, civil rights leader Julian Bond.
Monday, the Home will present a tribute to King that will include the reading of his “I Have a Dream” speech, and reflect upon King’s contributions to the civil rights movement, Bond said. Among those veterans involved in the program will be Lowell Witten, an African American veteran who served in Japan as an Air Force cryptographer in the late 1950s.
Another Ventura veteran, Dick Dodd, served in the Air Force during the Korean War. Later, as the human resources director at Kimberly Clark, Dodd received the NAACP Massachusetts Brotherhood Award. Dodd is white.
“That’s what inspired me to lead the Martin Luther King tribute on Monday,” Bond said. “It’s not just African Americans. We have veterans of all races who want to share their stories. Generation after generation, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Which means that at least some of King’s dreams have come true.