“Dr. King’s Legacy During the Age of Obama: A Call for an Authentic Multiracial Democracy” by Dr. Carlos Muñoz

On January 24, 2013, Dr. Carlos Muñoz, Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and SPOHP Advisory Board member, gave the following speech at Kent State University. Dr. Muñoz was the keynote speaker at Kent State’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, themed “Empowering the Individual, Strengthening the Community.” 

Dr. Muñoz is a member of SPOHP’s new Advisory Board for 2013-2014.

“Dr. King’s Legacy During the Age of Obama: A Call for an Authentic Multiracial Democracy”

I am dedicating my lecture to the memory of the four Kent State students who were killed by the National Guard on May 4,1970, when they were protesting our nation’s invasion of Cambodia that expanded the war in Vietnam.  Their names were Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Knox Schroeder, & Sandra Scheuer. May they rest in peace.  Another 9 students were wounded. They also deserve to be mentioned: Joseph Lewis Jr., John R. Cleary, Thomas Mark Grace, Dean R. Kahler (paralyzed for life from his wound), Douglas Alan Wrentmore, Alan Michael Canfora, James Dennis Russell, Robert Follis, and Donald Scott MacKenzie.

Dr. King inspired people from all walks of life to tap into their own inner spirit and courage and to commit their lives to the struggles for racial equality, social justice, human rights, and peace.  His ideas and vision remain meaningful today.  What he taught us by word and deed back in the 1960s remains the cornerstone for the struggles of today and the ones we must engage in tomorrow.  He argued that there cannot be individual freedom unless there is freedom for all the oppressed.  He underscored for us that each individual citizen must share the responsibility for the welfare of the community at large. We should be good American citizens, but most importantly, we must be good citizens of the World.  He set the example that we as individual citizens have the responsibility to speak truth to power.

Dr. King inspired me to contribute to the making of the Mexican American civil rights movement throughout the Southwest. It became known as the Chicano movement.  The movement was ignited by non-violent protest by Mexican American students against racism in the largely segregated high schools of Los Angeles, California. Over 10,000 students walked out of the schools in 1968 during the first week of March, and brought the nation’s largest school system to a standstill.  It was the first time Mexican Americans had marched en masse against racial and ethnic inequality in the history of the United States.

Several weeks after the 1968 student strike.  I was one of thirteen Mexican American civil rights activists who were indicted and imprisoned for “conspiracy to disrupt the educational system of the city of Los Angeles”. We each faced 66 years in prison for the felony “crime” of conspiring to organize non-violent protest.    In 1970, the California State Appellate Court ruled we were innocent by virtue of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  I thank God for that amendment and the civil liberties we enjoy every day.  If it were not for that amendment, which as you know, grants us freedom of speech, I would be in prison today instead of being with you.

When I was doing the research for my book on the Chicano Movement, I discovered that those of us who organized the student walkouts had been targets of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO.  The COINTELPRO included police and military intelligence agencies that conducted political surveillance of activists identified as the key leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and other social movements during the 1960s.  Activists were arrested on trumped up charges, undercover agent provocateurs and informants were placed in movement organizations, and character assassination stories about activists were leaked to newspapers throughout the nation.  Dr. King was also a target of the COINTELPRO.

The Chicano Movement adopted Dr. King’s philosophy of Non Violence and echoed his ideas for racial equality and justice.   Our movement connected us directly to the historic common ground of struggle against racial and ethnic injustice that Mexican Americans have shared with African Americans.  The difference is that whereas their ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves, our ancestors became a colonized people within the new boundaries of an expanding American Empire. It was a consequence of the war between Mexico and the United States that ended in 1848 with Mexico losing half of its territory.  The northern part of Mexico became what is now known as the Southwestern United States.

From 1848 until the early 20th century, Mexicans were also lynched and could not vote unless they paid a poll tax they could not afford.   Mexican children could not attend white schools.  They were placed in dejure segregated “Mexican Schools”.  Mexicans were not allowed in public places like swimming pools and restaurants. Signs reading “No Mexicans Allowed” were common throughout the Southwest during the time those that read “No Colored” and “No dogs” were common in the South.

As was the case with African Americans, Mexicans were considered a racially inferior people.  During the 1920s and 30s, when the U.S. Congress engaged in debates over Mexican immigration, white politicians and academics gave testimony that categorized Mexicans as a menace to the dominant culture.  The debate pitted those concerned with keeping America “racially pure” and protecting white workers from foreign competition, against those who argued that Mexican cheap labor was essential to capitalism.

Photo by Jenna Watson of the Daily Kent Stater.
Photo by Jenna Watson of the Daily Kent Stater. http://kentwired.com

Those representing right wing conservatives argued that Mexicans were a threat to the cultural and social fabric of American society.  They defined Mexicans as the most “insidious mixture of white, Indian, and Negro blood strains ever produced”.  Others argued that Mexicans “were eugenically as low powered as the Negro…. of low mentality, inherently criminal, and therefore a degenerate race that would afflict American society with an embarrassing race problem”.

These racist attitudes and beliefs about Mexicans and other Latinos continue to permeate our society at large.   Today you can see that clearly in the state of Arizona, Georgia, and other states that have passed laws or are proposing laws that criminalize Latino undocumented immigrants.

During the same time Congressional hearings were taking place during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Mexican Americans engaged in court battles against the segregation of their children into “Mexican Schools”. The most important court case took place in 1946 and was named “Mendez vs. Westminster.  It ended segregation of Mexican American children in California.  The Mendez case paved the way for the historic “Brown v. Board of Education” nearly a decade later in 1954.  Indeed, Thurgood Marshall, at the time a young attorney, was a co-author of the NAACP’s Amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the Méndez case.

The Mendez and Brown historic cases got rid of segregation in the public schools but they did not open the doors to equal opportunity in the dominant political, social, and economic institutions.  It took the Black, Chicano, Asian, and Native American civil rights movements of the 1960s that were inspired by Dr. King, to open those doors for people of color as a whole.

If Dr. King were alive today, no doubt he would have celebrated President Obama’s initial election in 2008.  But Dr. King would have reminded us that a black president alone would not be able to overnight make the changes he promised. He would have reminded us that Obama is not a messiah with the power to change the reality of racial and ethnic inequality.  Dr. King would have been correct because inequality in our society remains alive and well today, as a matter of fact conditions for people of color are worse today than they have ever been.   Dr. King would have been critical of President Obama’s because no significant efforts have been made by his Administration and the Congress to change that reality.  He would have been as disappointed, as I am, that President Obama continues to focus on the issues of the middle class and has ignored the poor.   He bailed out Wall Street during his first term, but the gap between rich and poor has become wider than ever in the history of our nation.  When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, 12% of Americans lived in poverty.  Today it is 15.1% and the Census Bureau expects it to rise to rise to 15.7%.  In real numbers that adds up to over 46 million people living in poverty.

POVERTY BREAKDOWN BY RACE/ETHNICITY (DATA FROM U.S. CENSUS BUREAU)

  • 9.9% white
  • 12.1% Asian
  • 25% Native American  (28.4% on reservations)
  • 26.6% Latino
  • 27.4% black

More Women in poverty than Men:

  • 11% White
  • 27% Latina
  • 28% Black
  • 19% of our nation’s children live in poverty = 14 million – the data make clear that children of color are over represented in ranks of poor.
  • 34% of black children,
  • 31% of Latino children
  • 31% Native American
  • 13% Asian
  • 11% White Children
  • 61% of black and Latino children live in families that struggle to make ends meet. More than 35.8 million Americans used food stamps in 2012. Half of them were children.

UNEMPLOYMENT RATES

  • WHITES 7.4. %
  • BLACKS 13.6%
  • LATINOS  11%

EDUCATIONAL INEQUALITY HAS ALSO CONTINUED TO BE A REALITY UNDER THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION.

The 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education and the 1946 Mendez v. Westminster that ended dejure segregation and opened the doors into white schools for black and Latino children.  But today they continue to be victimized by defacto segregation in the poor and working class inner city school districts throughout the nation. Latinos are now the most segregated student population in the nation and they also have the highest drop out rate, or more accurately, the “Push Out Rate”.

In higher education, affirmative action programs that were products of Dr. King’s civil rights movement and the Chicano Movement have been either terminated or watered down as a result of conservative mostly white opposition.   The consequence is that Black and Latino student enrollments have drastically declined in public colleges and universities across the nation.  For example, Black students at my campus are now largely invisible, except on the football and basketball teams. And Latinos, who are now the majority people of color population in my state, have also declined and remain under-represented in institutions of higher education.

The following 2010 U.S. Census numbers tells us the consequence:

  • B.A. Degrees = Whites 18.5%, Black 11.6%, and Latino 8.9%
  • Graduate/Professional Degrees = Whites 10.8%, Blacks 6.1%, and Latino 4.1%

(In terms of women, 30 percent of white women had a college degree or higher, compared to 21.4 percent of black women and a mere 14.9 percent of Latinas.)

Those who have led the struggle against Affirmative Action have been victorious because they have effectively co-opted Dr. King’s ideas and vision for a colorblind society. They have falsely redefined Affirmative Action as a “racist in reverse” policy discriminatory to White students.  It is ironic that Ward Connerly, a conservative African American and a product of affirmative action, who served as a regent of the University of California, has been a prominent leader in the struggle against affirmative action throughout the nation.

This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech that he made at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C..  The most quoted words from that speech are as follows:

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Those who are against affirmative action, use that quote to include white children.  But they ignore the fact that in that speech, Dr. King was making specific references to black racial inequality.  Dr. king was well aware that white supremacy had created an institutionalized system of white privilege that has existed since it was instituted when our Republic was founded.  He argued that laws or policies that allowed preferences to black people were legitimate because they didn’t disenfranchise other powerless groups of people. They instead contributed toward an equal playing field between people of color and the white majority.

If he were alive today he would argue that affirmative action remains critically important today because African Americans and Latinos remain underrepresented in institutions of higher education and other dominant social and political institutions.  In contrast, they are over represented in the prisons.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 40% of all prisoners are African Americans and 26.6% are Latinos.

But if we add up the Latino undocumented immigrants in prison, that includes children, the Latino prison population percentage also adds up to 40%. That is not the type of affirmative action that Dr. King had in mind.

Today, we are once again confronted by critical and challenging times. As a matter of fact, I think we are currently living in the worst of times.  A black President has not made a difference in making the times better.  Dr. King would remind us that conditions will get better sooner than later if we build a mass movement for social justice and peace.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to get congressional support for his proposed legislation in the interest of the poor and working class only because a strong and vibrant mass labor movement demanded it.  Social Security and the right to organize unions were two examples. President Lyndon B. Johnson received congressional support for civil rights legislation because there was a strong and vibrant mass civil rights movement that demanded it.  We must build a powerful new movement that will hold President Obama accountable to make the changes he has promised and demand that he save the poor and working class like he saved Wall Street and the Corporations during his first term.

Dr. King courageously spoke truth to power to both liberals and conservatives.  His words and criticism of political leaders who remain part of the problem instead of the solution, and of those who remain passive during the critical and challenging times our nation faced during the 1960s, still ring true today.  He would be the first to hold President Obama accountable if he continues to ignore the poor and continues to pursue a foreign policy of intervention and war throughout the world.

In his 1967 speech entitled “A time to Break Silence” he spoke out against the War in Vietnam because the war was “the enemy of the poor”.  As a Vietnam War Era Veteran, that speech was especially meaningful to me.  In that speech, Dr. King vividly saw the connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle against poverty and racial inequality at home.  He spoke out against the Vietnam War because it not only drained funds away from meeting the human needs of the poor at home, but also sent black men to ostensibly fight and die for democracy abroad when it did not exist in Georgia or East Harlem at the time.

As was the case in Vietnam, poor and working class Black and Latino soldiers have died on the battlefields of the Middle East and elsewhere while their families back home continue to struggle to survive against the conditions created by poverty and racial and class inequality.

Many of us have already broken the silence against the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.  But we need to remind those who have not, that Dr. King would also have wanted us to act and not be intimated by those who tell us it is unpatriotic to openly criticize our government and the President, regardless of race, during a time of war.  Or that speaking out against war means that we don’t support our soldiers.  To the contrary, those of us who favor the immediate withdrawal of our troops, demand it precisely because we do support them and we want them home safe and out of harms way.

We have lost enough of our young men and women of all races and ethnicities. As of today, 4,488 of them in Iraq and 2,575 in Afghanistan have died.  (Department of Defense Data) We don’t want to lose anymore.  We must also speak out against the killing of any more innocent people in those countries.  Over a million of them have died in Iraq and in Afghanistan.  We should not allow any more to die. We must also let President Obama and the Congress know that we won’t tolerate a war against Iran and Syria.  We must also let it be known that we oppose the “dirty wars” that are ongoing today in Yemen, Pakistan, and Mali.  And that we oppose Obama’s support of the African war lords in Somalia and Uganda that are killing and raping their own people.  And that we also oppose continued U.S. military and other assistance to Israel because of its army’s massacre of over a thousand innocent people in Gaza in 2008-2009 and it’s continued military occupation of Palestine.  Finally, that we demand that all the 736 U.S. military based around the world be closed.

We must have the same courage Dr. King had during the Vietnam War and demand that the over three trillion dollars being spent on war and military assistance must be diverted to fight poverty at home. In the process, it would a better way to resolve the economic crisis confronting our nation today.  We must demand that as Obama and the Congress have supported the bail out of the corporate, banking, and financial institutions responsible for that crisis, that they must now bail out the poor and the working underclass during the next 4 years of the second Obama Presidency.

On the home front, we must demand that Obama’s Administration immediately cease its war against Latino undocumented immigrants.  If Dr. King would be alive today, no doubt he would be speaking out in defense of the poor undocumented Latino immigrants who are forced to work as the cheapest labor force in the nation. They are the most vulnerable to economic and social injustice.  They are treated like criminals although they are innocent victims of what I call a government terrorist war led by the ICE, the enforcement immigration agency of the Department of Homeland Security.  ICE military style raids take place at the workplace and at the homes of undocumented worker’s families.   Obama has gone down in history as the President who has deported the most number of people, over 450, 000 during his first term.  He has also maintained a militarized border between Mexico and the U.S.  and most recently has approved the use of drones as he has done elsewhere in the world.  We must demand that President Obama and the Congress produce a comprehensive immigration policy based on the human rights of undocumented workers and their families.

Prior to his assassination in 1968, Dr. King called for the nation to dedicate itself to a nonviolent War on Poverty.   He had decided to build a multiracial coalition of all poor people, inclusive of white, black, indigenous, Latino, and Asian.  As part of the building process, he had started organizing a Poor People’s march on Washington. Dr. King believed the time had come to transform civil rights struggles into a mass movement for human rights because War and Poverty negatively impacts all the American poor regardless of race and ethnicity.

If we want to truly honor Dr. King’s legacy, we must build Poor People’s coalitions, inclusive of the immigrant poor, both documented and undocumented, throughout our nation.  And hopefully, those coalitions can lead toward the organizing of another march on Washington to demand that the Obama Presidency and the Congress declare a war on poverty.  Not a temporary one like the one declared by President Lyndon Johnson, but a permanent one that would last until poverty is eliminated!

Dr. King did not hesitate to speak truth to power no matter the consequences. We must do the same today.  We must use his legacy as the inspiration for us to be active citizens beyond the time for elections.

We do not have the luxury to leave it up to President Obama to keep hope alive.  Based on his poor record in his first term, we cannot assume he will keep his campaign promises the second time around.

The time has come for us to become active citizens in our communities, in our workplace, and elsewhere. We must become community organizers and continue to carry the torch for hope and fundamental, not symbolic change.  In the final analysis, as my dear old friend and comrade, the late June Jordan put it, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Dr. King’s ideas remain vibrant to those of us committed to social justice, human rights, and peace.  The words he wrote and spoke on the issues of his time remain meaningful for us today.  We must put them into practice and keep his revolutionary spirit alive and struggle to build an authentic Multiracial Democracy committed to social justice and peace at home and abroad.

Dr. King inspired me to have my own dream for an Authentic Multiracial Democracy.   I would like to share my dream with you today.

I have a dream that Americans of all colors, ethnicities, cultures, religions, sexual preferences, the able and disabled, men and women, will give birth to an authentic Multiracial Democracy.

A Democracy that will promote and nurture racial and ethnic diversity and equality beyond symbolic tokenism.

A Democracy that will promote social, economic, and environmental justice, religious tolerance, and peace at home and abroad.

A Democracy with a government that will include a representative of every diverse group at the table of political power on behalf of the people, not the military- corporate- prison complex.

A Democracy with a national political multiparty electoral system where candidates for elective office include the poor and working class, not just those who are rich or middle class.  With an electoral system where every vote will in fact be counted and not influenced by corporate lobbyists.

A Democracy where human needs are prioritized and not the needs of the rich and the corporations. And makes possible a government bureaucracy that assures the safety of our citizens, especially the poor, when natural disasters take place. No more Katrina’s!

A Democracy that honors all workers, those who are citizens and those who are not, the documented and the undocumented.

A Democracy that defines health care, housing, childcare, and education as Human Rights.

A Democracy that prioritizes youth as the most important investment for the future of our nation and builds more schools instead of prisons.

A Democracy that wages war against poverty and not sovereign nations that do not represent a direct threat to our security.

A Democracy that does not support dictatorships throughout the world.

A Democracy that will be based on love and compassion and not hate and greed.

In conclusion, I pass on to you the main lesson that I have learned during my years as a fighter for freedom and peace.  And that lesson is that struggle is life and life is struggle.  But most importantly, that victory is in the struggle!

Dr. Carlos Muñoz, January 2013, Kent State University