Opinion | Paul Olson: Jan. 16 is a celebration of liberty and justice for all | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Paul Olson: Jan. 16 is a celebration of liberty and justice for all

At the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of promises that were not being kept: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Our government of the people was formed to defend our unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must not forget that all Americans benefited from the Civil Rights Movement because we are all at risk when any of our fellow citizens are deprived of their rights. Martin Luther King Jr. Day should remind us of the liberty we have been promised as Americans and that many difficult struggles have been undertaken in defense of those rights.

Though securing constitutional rights has often required amazing patience by oppressed people, the courts have usually come to the rescue. “The reason we have the 14th Amendment is to provide the courts with the opportunity to override the will of the people when the will of the people discriminates against a segment of society,” explained former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson. The majority of people in the Jim Crow era South were happy with the laws they had enacted to keep society racially segregated. They enforced those laws to maintain the status quo. But the 14th Amendment protects all Americans, not just the majority.

The First Amendment of the Constitution protects “ …the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is impressive how effectively the Civil Rights Movement used peaceful protests and civil disobedience to build awareness to their just cause and bring about change. Black people in the South had little political or economic power in the 1950s and 60s so they had to rely on marches, lawsuits, boycotts and sit-ins. The peaceful protests, and often brutal opposition to them, drew attention nationwide to the oppression Blacks were subjected to in the Jim Crow South, helping to broaden their public support and gaining them political allies in Washington.

The Civil Rights Movement provides a good example of how easy it is for history to be altered in the nation’s collective memory. A 2021 YouGov poll found that 89 percent of Americans had a positive view of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But in the 1960s King and the protesters were labeled as troublemakers and unpatriotic. In a 1968 Harris poll taken a few months prior to his death nearly 75 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of Dr. King. A Gallup poll taken prior to the March on Washington found that only 23 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the proposed civil rights gathering. In a poll taken nine months after the march, 74% of Americans said such gatherings hurt Black people’s cause for racial equality.

Most people today are aware of the unanimous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that found racially segregated public schools to be inherently unequal and in violation of “the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.” However not enough people remember how bitterly southern states fought against actually following the law. Many schools were closed to avoid integration and whites-only private schools appeared throughout the South so that schools remained largely segregated into the 1970s.

Having elected an African-American President and recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day allows many Americans to pretend we have reached a post-racial age. Even though Barack Obama won 43% of the white vote nationwide in 2008, he only received 10% of the white vote in Alabama, where Democrat John Kerry had received 19% of the white vote in 2004. Alabama and Mississippi didn’t get the memo that the Civil War is over. These two states will observe a combination holiday on Jan. 16, Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King’s birthdays, strangely celebrating the memory of someone who led peaceful protests for constitutional rights together with someone who commanded an army fighting against our nation.

I hope our schools and parents will teach children an accurate history of the United States, warts and all. Some of the most inspirational stories in American history are those that show the perseverance and courage of disadvantaged people. We can all celebrate such spirit. When I read books about slavery and Jim Crow oppression, it does not make me feel less patriotic. Our nation has always been made up of imperfect people, and I am inspired by the progress we as a nation have made in living up to the ideals of liberty and equal protection under the law embodied in our founding documents.

During MLK weekend, as we are busy running our businesses or enjoying an extra day off, it can be easy to forget the countless struggles in our nation’s history that have benefited each of us. To honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his impact on our nation:

  • Consider joining a peaceful assembly/protest for some important cause this year.
  • Go to Reason.com, aclu.org, ij.org, and cato.org for useful information on your constitutional  rights and examples of rights under threat.
  • Read “A Letter From a Birmingham Jail” written in 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr. which eloquently expresses the timeliness, morality and justice of the Civil Rights protests.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service. Help improve our community by volunteering at one of our remarkable nonprofit organizations.

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