MLK Jr.—A Man For All Seasons

MLK Jr.—A Man For All Seasons

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EDITOR'S NOTE: A veteran civil rights lawyer who grew up along the Tex-Mex border explains how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle became her own. Irma Herrera, an associate editor at New America Media, directed Equal Rights Advocates for 15 years.

As a young Mexican-American girl in the mid-1960s, I watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on television news leading marches in Birmingham and Atlanta. What I saw seemed a million miles away.

My world began at the Texas-Mexican border and pretty much ended in San Antonio; these were the places where our relatives lived and thus the only places I ever visited. A Sunday afternoon outing might be a drive to Corpus Christi, for a dip in the Gulf of Mexico, and a chance to drive through the beautiful Anglo neighborhoods with brick houses, grassy green lawn and sidewalks. Someday, I said to myself, I’m gonna live in one of those houses.

That’s when I began to see that Dr. King’s struggle was our struggle as well. After all, we too lived in a completely segregated conditions. We were relegated to all-Mexican neighborhoods with substandard housing. Multi-generational families crowded into casita humildes, as our mothers would often refer to their homes upon welcoming visitors. All the nicer schools and parks were on the North Side of town, the Anglo neighborhoods. When our town finally built a public swimming pool, it went on the North Side park, far from the neighborhoods where we lived. Segregation was so complete that we had two parochial schools, one of the Anglos, the other for the Mexican Americans. Although Alice, Texas, had only one high school, the near-complete segregation continued through classroom assignments. Few of us went on to college and many never even finished high school. And most of the boys I had grown up with were drafted and went to Vietnam.

Dr. King, and the lawyers at his side who helped give voice to the millions of people denied their basic human dignity, inspired me to a 30-year career as a lawyer, advocating for the fair and equal treatment of those who are scorned and disdained.

The past few days as I’ve heard Dr. King’s eloquent voice on the radio, and I am still so deeply moved by his words. And somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall that Arizona initially refused to recognize MLK Day as an official federal holiday. Arizona, in the news for all the wrong reasons. The state that launched a no-holds-barred campaign against immigrants, subjecting them to stops and searches and requiring proof of lawful presence. Let’s face it— the real targets are poor people who happen to look Mexican or Central American, no matter how many generations Arizona has been their home. In the saddest of ironies there are reported cases of Native Americans being stopped by the police mistaken for immigrants.

The attention focused on Arizona and the anti-immigrant sentiment took a back seat in recent days with the horrific tragedy in Tucson. I have welcomed calls from all sides of the political spectrum beginning with President Obama’s moving remarks that we tone down the rhetoric and engage in civilized discourse.

I would like to believe that if Dr. King were with us today, he would have led a march in the streets of Tucson or Phoenix. And central to his message of peace and reconciliation would have been according dignity and respect and legal protection to all immigrants. What is to be gained, he might have asked in a rousing speech, by rounding up and deporting women who are eight months' pregnant. How do we make this country stronger by denying citizenship to children born in the United States to parents that lack lawful status? And as he boldly took a stand against the Vietnam War, I can imagine that he would have spoken against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why are thousands of our young men and women from low-income families fighting and dying in foreign battles? And of course he would remind us to mourn the loss of human lives in those countries.

In 1968 Cesar Chavez undertook his first public fast to raise awareness of the mistreatment of farm workers in California, a population that was predominately Mexican American and viewed as disposable work force. Dr. King took time to send a brief telegram to Cesar Chavez. "Our separate struggles are really one,” he said. “A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.”