On MLK Day, remember that everyone should protect human rights

Posted Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Human rights

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Neither Martin Luther King Jr. nor Rosa Parks descended from heaven to take up positions as civil rights leaders among us. Nor did César Chávez or Susan B. Anthony.

They all became who they were because their family, friends, colleagues and even enemies prodded them along from the time they were children and helped them grow their dedication and hone their leadership skills.

Occasions like the King holiday Monday should challenge us to realize the potential impact that we can have on our relatives, acquaintances and neighbors, if we take the time to nudge, encourage and support them. We might actually help raise up the next King, Parks, Chávez or Anthony.

When we remember them, it is also fitting to recall and honor the people who influenced their lives.

This is important for the MLK holiday because we have a tendency to deify our heroes and forget they started out like each of us. Making gods of our heroes can become an easy excuse for not doing the work we know we should do. We tell ourselves that they, and only they, could bring about great changes, and we excuse ourselves from the task.

The holiday also should remind us of King's example and preaching that we need to support all human rights efforts, not just those that especially appeal to us. Protecting the rights of all people benefits society and moves forward the universal expansion of human rights.

King realized this. We forget that, besides his courageous civil rights work, he passionately opposed the Vietnam War and, at the time of his death in 1968, was planning the Poor People's March on Washington for economic justice in this country.

The Poor People's Campaign was a multiracial effort to address poverty in the U.S. by demanding a $30 billion antipoverty government package, including full employment and the annual construction of 500,000 affordable residences.

We also tend to forget that King was assassinated, not during his civil rights endeavors, but while helping poor sanitation workers in Memphis organize a union for better wages and working conditions.

Were King alive today, he surely would be involved in overturning the U.S. Supreme Court's anti-democratic Citizens United decision; contesting efforts to suppress voting in minority and poor communities; trying to reverse the re-segregation of our schools; supporting equal rights for gay people; opposing drone attacks on foreign civilian populations; and resisting government's constant narrowing of our civil liberties in the name of national security.

More to the point, King would encourage us and stir our moral conscience to undertake those efforts. King believed in Eleanor Roosevelt's observation: "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home ... where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

Our work is cut out for us.

James C. Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

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