Winning essays: Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy empowers a new generation

The Fresno BeeJanuary 18, 2014 

20130828 MLK


It has been a Bee tradition to publish an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.'s landmark essay "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" on the national observance of the holiday honoring him and celebrating the advancement of civil rights.

King wrote the letter to eight prominent Alabama clergymen while he was being held in jail on a charge of parading without a permit.

"We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights," he wrote. "The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

"I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' "

But today marks the start of what we expect will become a new tradition: publishing the winning student essays about King and his impacts from a contest held by the Fresno County Office of Education.

A year ago, my niece Caira Jackson-Brooks wrote one of the winning essays, and her mom provided me a copy. I was impressed by her writing. But what stood out more was how King's words and actions powerfully resonated with young people today. Her essay hatched the idea for this Opinion page.

The contest theme last year, which Caira wrote on, was "Teamwork Makes the Dream Work." This year's theme is "I Have a Dream: Then and Now."

The editorial board congratulates all of the contest participants.

Essay contest winners

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

I believe that the statement, "teamwork makes the dream work," is very true. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't make his dream come true on his own, he needed lots of help. It took thousands of people to achieve desegregation of the Montgomery bus system through boycotts. It took tens of thousands of people who participated in the march on Washington so that African Americans could gain their equal rights. Martin Luther King Jr. also left a legacy that inspired many other heroes to organize people to stand up for what they believe in.

Rosa Parks took a stand against segregation as an individual, but she alone could not make a huge change. Mr. King made the difference by organizing a big group of people to help him boycott the buses in Montgomery. The boycott worked. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

Teamwork was used by people who participated in the March on Washington. The fact that whites participated alongside blacks showed the government that people weren't happy with the laws. Over 200,000 people marched together and convinced the government to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Even though Mr. King died, he had made a huge change in society. He influenced other people like Caesar Chavez and more that felt that they didn't have the same rights that most had. He persuaded people to be the change that they wanted to see in the world.

Because of Mr. King and the people who helped him to achieve his dream of equality, I have equal rights and freedom as an African American citizen. I wish I could thank every one of those people personally, especially Martin Luther King Jr. Because of teamwork, Mr. King's dream has come true.

-- Caira Jackson-Brooks, 2013 Elementary School Essay Winner: 5th grade, Manchester GATE, Fresno Unified

I Have a Dream: Then and Now

Fifty years ago the Civil Rights Movement led a man to make one of the greatest speeches in American History. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech and influenced not just the way we see African Americans, but racism overall.

From his time to today there has been much improvement in the way that society views racism and segregation. Although there are still many problems such as prejudice against not only race, but also religion, America has improved vastly over the past 50 years to get closer to the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. once voiced.

The Civil Rights Movement was a worldwide series of political movements in the mid-1900s to try and end segregation and gain rights for minorities. The goal was to gain rights for all minorities through non-violent forms of resistance. During this time the greatest known problem was the racism against African Americans and their segregation. Despite "legally" having the right to vote, there were numerous laws and tests placed in front of African Americans before voting to restrict the number of people who could actually vote to less than 4% of the African American population in the United States.

During the course of the movement, a series of acts were made to try and gain the permanent right to vote without conditions. Through their acts of non-violence, finally in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed and more than 265,000 African Americans voted that year.

Most people remember the Civil Rights Movement as a time when "blacks" tried to gain their rights. However, at the same time another battle was raging. Other groups like Hispanics were also fighting for the same rights. Here in the Central Valley and in Fresno people remember and admire the name Cesar Chavez, whose famous saying "Si, se puede!" rings in most Hispanic homes, giving them hope for a better future. The famous civil rights activist also believed in reaching his goal of improvement for union laborers through non-violent acts of reform.

Here in Fresno County where farm workers are in abundance and some fields stretch as far as the eye can see, this movement during Civil Rights also gave them the same hope that African Americans were also having in gaining rights for their majority. Today, through Cesar Chavez and other people like him, farm workers now have unions such as the United Farm Workers (UFW) that guard their rights that were fought for very hard. Today African Americans and all native born citizens have the right to vote, regardless of the color of their skin or type of religion.

The Civil Rights Movement led a wave of motions that are still fighting for equality for all people today. Through people who are passionate about everyone having equal opportunity, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, the hope of equality is still a very reachable dream, but it does not happen with people doing nothing.

With current activists still standing against oppression, America looks to have a bright future for the hope of their citizens and is striving to achieve the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about. That one day all people will be able to walk amongst each other in unison to make the American Dream a realization for all people of all nations and of all religions.

-- Josue Ocotlan, 2014 High School Essay Winner: 11th grade, Sunnyside High School, Fresno Unified

In the year 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his speech "I Have a Dream," where he spoke about the inequalities African Americans were experiencing. In his speech, he spoke about the injustice, racism and segregation African Americans endured. He felt hopeful when he spoke about how he wished his children could live in a world where character meant more than the color of your skin. As we fast-forward to 2014, as a nation we have made significant changes, although there are still a lot of changes to be made so we can truly live in equality.

During the 1960s, African Americans experienced violence, racism, segregation and the inability to vote. Segregation was in all of the United States, but it was worse in the South where black and white students weren't allowed to attend the same school; they had to eat at different restaurants and there were "white only" signs at public places. Blacks encountered arrests, beatings, shootings, arson and murder. Despite all of the obstacles they were presented, young people were striving to make a difference. They were hopeful, disciplined and dedicated even though they were met with hostility, federal ambivalence, indifference and mob and police violence for trying to organize voter registration. During this time, although blacks were able to vote because of the 15th Amendment in the Constitution, there were practices in place that kept them from voting such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

As a nation we have done away with segregation, public schools give access to all races for education and businesses aren't allowed to avoid doing business with someone because of their race or skin color; these are changes in the right direction. The violence towards African Americans has not completely gone away, however there are now consequences for violence against race. Furthermore, the barriers emplaced to keep African Americans from voting are no longer there and now we see increasing awareness in making voting accessible to everyone. For example, there are more polling places and people are also able to mail in their ballots or receive help while voting if they have a disability.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that one day everyone would be treated equally. We as a nation have come a long ways since then. Our public schools allow anybody to attend and are given an equal opportunity to learn. Although there's still racism towards people of a certain race or color, it's not as open or acceptable. My dream would be to live in a world where there is no racism, violence or hatred towards anyone because of the color of their skin. I dream of a place where we can live anywhere or become anything we want to be as long as we are willing to work hard. The election of President Obama shows that barriers can be broken, minorities must continue to fight for change.

-- Isabel Garcia, 2014 Middle School Essay Winner: 8th grade, Conejo Middle School, Laton Joint Unified

Dr. King had a dream of equality for all people and that a person would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. That African Americans would no longer be uneducated. That one day everyone would unite as brothers and sisters.

In Fresno County in the 1960s, African Americans mostly lived on the "west side" due to no real-estate agents selling them homes elsewhere. Minorities didn't receive an equal education as they were forced into separate schools due to where they lived. Many African Americans faced discrimination at school and work.

Since that time, Fresno County has worked towards fulfilling Dr. King's dream. They have accomplished equal rights for all minorities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed African Americans and other minorities to vote across the country. Racism and discrimination are no longer tolerated. Children of all races and colors have an equal education.

There are still barriers that need to be addressed today in Fresno County. Racism and hate crimes still exist. Recently a former Clovis student attending San Jose State University was charged with a hate crime against his African American roommate. This must stop. It doesn't happen often, but discrimination at work and school still exists. This will only end when people stand up and work together towards equality.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream for equality continues to this day. Over the years, Fresno County residents have united together for change. There are still barriers to break down, but together residents of Fresno County continue to work together to achieve Dr. King's dream.

-- Elijah Lawton, 2014 Elementary School Essay Winner: 5th grade, Manchester GATE, Fresno Unified