In 1955, Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama when she refused to give her rightful seat to a white man. I was seven years old and living in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dr. Martin Luther King led this boycott, and for thirteen months blacks walked and carpooled everywhere, refusing to take the bus.
Non-violent protests to end segregation throughout the South followed, culminating in the 1963 grand March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - and the Selma marches for Voting Rights. I remember wishing I could participate, because even though a thousand miles away and too young, I understood this was everyone’s history in the making – including my own.
Fifty years later, as a professional working to increase diversity, inclusion and social justice in organizations, I know first-hand that Dr. King’s vision is still an everyday, all year round matter - and everyone’s business.
We should remember that Dr. King believed the social problems affecting the disadvantaged cut right across different racial, economic and religious identities. He fought as passionately for voting rights as for the rights of Sanitation workers; as forcefully against housing and job discrimination as he did against racial segregation. And just before he was assassinated, he rallied against the war in Vietnam, which disproportionally affected the poor and people of color in the US and the colonized peoples of the world. He died before he could lead the Poor People’s March on Washington as planned, but he understood that poverty, war, segregation, discrimination, and voting, were all interrelated. And he worked diligently to build coalitions across these different interests to affect change.
Dr. King also understood that ending discrimination took more than simply changing an individual’s prejudices. The system that produces prejudice and makes discrimination into law also needs changing.
Today, I could imagine Dr. King marching against the school-to-prison pipeline, in which even in Vermont, students with disabilities and children of color are punished and expelled from school at much higher rates than those who are not - resulting later in life in disproportionate numbers and lengths of incarceration.
Dr. King would still be working to turn protests into political power, and to influence Congress and the Supreme Court. His legacy is no less relevant today, than it was in the 1960s, when I was just a child.