January 8, 2017

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, only for Blacks?

For a number of Americans, nth-generation and recent arrivals , Martin Luther King Jr. Day is viewed as a holiday celebrated mainly by Black Americans with the added bonus of everyone getting a day off.

But if it wasn’t for Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, supporters and the victims of segregationist policies in the 1950s and 60s, who woke up the country from inaction, the United States of America would be an entirely different place to live in today.

Largely due to the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act was legislated in1964 banning discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin.” A year later, the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, dramatically opened the doors for non-European immigrants. These noble Acts also exist in some fashion in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, but ask a number of immigrants from these countries who have re-migrated to the United States, or people who left the U.S. and migrated to these countries, and you would hear “yes in paper but not in practice.”

Comparatively, today America has less societal and personal world view barriers on race, a non-American accent, foreign education, religion, gender, disability, and sexual orientation primarily because of the precedence of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. If the Movement was not as resolute and leading, there would have been no Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, nor today a Governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal of Louisiana. There will be no medical doctors and nurses with accents in hospitals. There will be very few women managers or positions for the disabled. There will be little tolerance for Hispanic media or Spanish Spoken Here signs. But the most telling of them all will be in the eyes. There will be unmitigated stares of “why are you here?” as you enter schools, restaurants, bars, and golf clubs. The list can go on forever.

It is not hard to imagine what an America without a civil rights movement past would be like. All you have to do is drive north to Canada. Although Canada has been open to immigration and asserts itself as a “multicultural country with two official languages”, at day-to-day living, the evidence of professional disfranchisement for most immigrants are numerous and hardly debated. Thousands of skilled individuals have been unable to practice their vocation especially those in the medical, engineering, and accounting fields because of onerous certification rules, lengthy licensing requirements, fashioned scarcity of internships especially for foreign medical school graduates, lack of Canadian work experience – a Catch 22 situation , and as some studies indicate having a non-European sounding last name - less chances for being called to a job interview even though the person’s credentials are at par with a European-surnamed resume.

America by relative measures is still a country that gives most people a chance, but it came with a price. Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, to name a few, who have challenged and/or been victims of discrimination, opened the door to fairness for many Americans. The Union is struggling but the foundation for equality and decency remains strong, thanks in part to the vision of that man who stood at the Lincoln Memorial, and declaimed “I have a dream” for “all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” Well Martin Luther King Jr. (pause), many would say America is not there yet but the nation has made a few steps forward. Just take a walk a mile away to a big white house at Pennsylvania Avenue.

If ever Americans, new and long-standing, need to celebrate, and really celebrate a day of gratitude and indebtedness, it is more so today. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt for everyone, not just Black Americans.

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