Welcome to another year and another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Many of you will mark the day by sharing his inspirational quotes, or listening to his “I Have A Dream” speech.
But me? I’m teary-eyed this weekend, for King helped shape every aspect of my life – from my birth in America to my interracial marriage. And if you considered his impact on your own life, I bet you’d feel grateful, too.
Let’s go back to April 1963. King launched civil-rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala. with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. They hoped to desegregate businesses and local government, but their initial efforts fizzled.
King and other protest leaders ended up in jail. Upon his release, King went to Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church and asked volunteers to continue his work. Black adults refused. They feared retaliation from their white employers. Their children, however, had little to lose.
From May 2-10, 1963, thousands of children marched and were jailed. Police dogs attacked them. Water from fire hoses swept them down streets. And the photos and television reports shocked the world. The success of their protests didn’t just desegregate Birmingham; they motivated a nation.
In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy appeared on television to call for civil-rights legislation. And in August of that year, 200,000-300,000 people heard King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the Great March on Washington.
The Soviets cited the Children’s March and other civil-rights demonstrations as evidence of intractable US racism. Pushed by the Cold War, the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – just in time to change the lives of my husband’s parents.
For black children born in the 1950s, desegregation was everything. Their educational options widened with Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 US Supreme Court case that led to racially integrated schools.
In turn, the 1964 Civil Rights Act expanded their professional opportunities. My father-in-law emerged from the back of the bus in New Orleans to earn an MBA and the title of chief financial officer. My mother-in- law escaped a New York ghetto by attending white schools. Her improved education led to a master’s degree and a job as vice president in nursing.
That combination of Cold War pressure and the civil-rights movement also resulted in the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the law that transformed my parents’ lives. For the first time, the United States opened its doors wide to people from all over the world.
As Vice President Hubert Humphrey said: “We have removed all elements of second-class citizenship from our laws by the Civil Rights Act. We must in 1965 remove all elements in our immigration law which suggest there are second-class people.”
In the Philippines, my father completed his chemistry degree and applied to emigrate under the new law. It was 1968, only two years before an economic crisis escalated clashes between protesters and the government in Manila.
Tear gas and Molotov cocktails marked my mother’s daily life at college. One night, baton-wielding police mistook my father for a student protester. His government job – and the ID to prove it – saved him from a beating.
Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Just before his dictatorship started, the United States greenlighted my father’s application. After a few more weeks of finalizing his clearance and marrying my Mom, Dad boarded a plane. When it entered international airspace, its passengers cried, cheered and clapped, knowing how lucky they were to leave.
Do you see now why gratitude for King makes me tear up? Compared to our parents, my husband and I had all the benefits of stable, middle-class lives. Ralph lived in Maryland; I lived in New Jersey. We both grew up in diverse neighborhoods and attended good public schools.
By the time we married in 2006, mixed-race families were common. Here again, we owe a debt to the civil-rights movement; it inspired Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 US Supreme Court case that affirmed interracial marriage nationwide.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I invite you to examine how he still affects your lives. From desegregation to voting rights, or immigration to interracial marriage, you’ll find new reasons to thank him. Maybe you, like me, will even mark this holiday with a celebration – and the commitment to continue his vision.
Joan Obra, a former Bee reporter, co-owns Rusty’s Hawaiian, an award-winning coffee business in Pahala, Hawaii. Visit online at rustyshawaiian.com. Or connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.