Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hopes and Dreams

In just a few days, our nation will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when we honor the slain civil rights activist. The next day, we will witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, and the first African-American. We’ve come a long way in my lifetime.

As a young child, I saw civil rights protest footage on television. Mean looking white sheriffs using fire hoses on black women and children. This was heady stuff for a young girl growing up in a town where there were no black residents. I kept asking my parents why this was happening. I never did get a good answer. As I grew older I learned that it was all about skin color, fear, bigotry, and power. Oppression always seems to be about fear and power.

Dr. King was murdered in 1968. Not long afterward, the campaign for a national day to honor him began. It failed, as did subsequent attempts. Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in 1983. Reagan was opposed to the legislation, but a veto proof majority passed it. Three years later, the national holiday was observed for the first time. Despite the creation of the national holiday, a number of states were unwilling to acknowledge the holiday. The late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina was one of the loudest voices against honoring Dr. King. Helms cited his opposition to the Viet Nam war, womanizing, and called King a Marxist. Senator John McCain opposed the holiday, and defended the governor of Arizona for refusing to recognize the holiday. Arizona and New Hampshire refused to recognize the holiday into the 1990’s. This became a contentious issue in our state – the Conway Daily Sun saw a lot of letter to the editor on that particular subject. I was one of the letter writers who urged NH to honor Dr. King. There were a number who opposed the holiday, one of the loudest being a bigot from Glen who still writes quasi-racist screeds to the paper from time to time.

The King holiday faced a rocky road in NH. NH Senator Jim Splaine filed the first bill proposing a King holiday, in 1979. It was defeated, as were similar bills in 1981. Our current US Senator Judd Gregg opposed honoring Dr. King, when Gregg was serving in the US House back in the 80’s. He continued to oppose it as Governor of NH. For a number of years NH celebrated “Civil Rights Day” instead of honoring Dr. King. The claim by a succession of NH GOP governors was that it wasn’t just about one person; that the civil rights movement was more than that. This was an attempt at preventing NH from looking like a state full of pasty white bigots - a charge that continues to threaten NH’s first in the nation primary status. Arizona voters opted to honor Martin Luther King in 1990. NH didn’t until 1999. Governor Jeanne Shaheen was a strong advocate for renaming the holiday when she was re-elected in 1998. In 2000, NH celebrated Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights Day for the first time in 2000.

From fire hoses, dogs, and angry sheriffs to President of the United States in 50 years is one heck of a long strange trip. Many fought tooth and nail against it, but as Doctor King said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Our new president owes a great deal to a couple of doctors. To Dr. King who paved the way, and to Dr. Howard Dean, who gave Democrats the 50 state strategy. There is much to celebrate next week; the words and work of a visionary, and the inauguration of a new president who was elected because he inspired the hopes and dreams of American voters. Next week we begin a new chapter in our history. Amen.

“I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’

I come to say to you this afternoon how- ever difficult the moment, however frustrating the
hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live

How long? Not long, because you will reap
what you sow.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the
moral universe is long but it bends toward jus-

Martin Luther King, Jr., March 25, 1965

This was published as an editorial on January 16, in the Conway Daily Sun

Pride - In the Name of Love

1 comment:

DissedBelief said...

What a great piece Susan! And how illuminating it is to realize that here in the state of NH, racism is evidenced by the fact that its citizenry refused recognition of Dr. King for so long. How appalling that those in office were players in this. And no matter how vocal bigots are in attempting to excuse their behaviors, we know them by their words and actions. I continue to be appalled at many of the empty, ridiculous and plain stupid letters to the Sun. We are up against the "Fox" mentality in our communities across this country. Their attacks on our new President is already proving to be virulent, outrageous, appalling and disgusting. Very Christian behavior indeed. Peace begins with each one of us daily and our words are our souls.