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It is hard to believe that there was so much violence surrounding an effort to promote racial justice and equality for people, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. However, the battle did just that.
The violence prevailed even though Martin Luther King Jr. advocated nonviolence while promoting his mission of equal rights for everyone. King’s and the effort of many others paid off with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Then President John F. Kennedy said the proposed bill would give “all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments and also greater protection for the right to vote.”
The bill also banned racial discrimination in employment and included a provision that allowed for lawsuits to protect peaceful protesters and black voters from police brutality and suppression of free speech rights. It ended segregation in schools.
But the passage of the Civil Rights Act came at a cost – riots, shootings, lynchings, bombings and threats throughout the nation. King was jailed 29 times. It also cost him his life. King was assassinated April 4, 1968.
Tomorrow we will pause to remember the man who sought equality for everyone. Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday in 1983. Then President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law making the third Monday in January a national holiday celebrating King’s birth and life.
Getting that date approved came with its own set of battles. Opposers cited a need to honor others such as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Some said King was a communist and philanderer. Others argued about the cost of the federal holiday.
“I suggest they hurry back to their pocket-calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination,” said Sen. Bob Dole.
Even with the passage of the federal holiday, not all states immediately complied. South Carolina was the last state to sign a bill making the day a state holiday. That was done in 2000 by Lancaster’s native son and then Gov. Jim Hodges. That was the same year the Confederate flag was removed from the statehouse dome and moved to the capitol grounds on the corner of Gervais and Main streets in Columbia.
Was King perfect? No. Are we? Again, no. But his message never wavered or varied. That message is one of equality, justice, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and love.
More than 40 years after King’s death there’s evidence of improvement in race relations. Today, blacks and whites go to school together, share restrooms and water fountains, dine, work, play and stand in voting lines together.
Have we achieved perfection? No, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop trying.
However you celebrate the holiday, take time to reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of justice and true racial equality.
And let’s continue that dream.