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MLK Jr.'s Legacy And Today's Civil Rights Leaders


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We're continuing our discussion of Dr. King's legacy and how he's influenced - or hasn't - today's civil rights and human rights struggles.

I'm joined again by Kai Wright, editorial director of Colorlines.com. Viviana Hurtado is the blogger-in-chief of the site, TheWiseLatinaClub. Arsalan Iftikhar, civil rights attorney and author of the book, "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." And R. Clarke Cooper, who heads the group, Log Cabin Republicans. That's an organization that works within the Republican Party to advocate for gays and lesbians.

You know, let me turn to a subject now that often is not brought up when it comes to Dr. King, and that is the whole question of foreign policy and peace and war. You know, toward the end of his life, he started speaking out a lot more about Vietnam.

He said that he couldn't raise his voice against violence in the ghettos without raising his voice against America's actions during the war. Now, I just want to play a short clip from a speech that he gave called "Beyond Vietnam" delivered in April 1967 at New York City's Riverside Church. Here it is.


MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military expense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.


JR.: America, these are revolutionary times. All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exportation and friction and out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.

MARTIN: Clarke, I wanted to ask you - as we mentioned earlier, you're a reservist and a captain. Thank you for your service.

R. CLARKE COOPER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Do you consider Dr. King's perspective a legitimate critique?

COOPER: Well, context. Let's start with the foreign policy aspect. I mean, to be fair, Dr. King was not part of the national security paradigm. In 1967, he was not fully read in, as we say, on what the needs were, as why we needed a presence in Southeast Asia. And that was a foreign policy priority. It was bipartisan. It didn't matter who the president was. It was necessary at the time.

Another aspect of that speech that he made in 1967, "Beyond Vietnam," was talking about the cruel irony of black men dying over there and he was referencing the draft. Well, we now have a professional Army, professional military and as far as the critique, again, that was his opinion as far as what he was looking at on foreign policy. But I can see why that might have caused some concern for those who were supporters of his.

MARTIN: Arsalan, what's your perspective here? I mean, do you feel that Dr. King's analysis still holds?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, Michel, my favorite Dr. King quote was he once said that we will have to repent in this generation, not only for the actions of bad people, but also for the appalling silence of good people. And I think what Dr. King did sort of morphed into conceptual 30,000 for the altitude view, especially in terms of the peace movement. It's helped to give a voice to people who were anti-war, who were pro peace, who wanted to, you know - wanted to end any sort of military intervention across the globe.

And I think, even today, you know, the anti-war rallies, the anti-war movements that we've seen, you know, in the last 10 years of the war in Iraq and things like that, I think, you know, are our legacies of what Dr. King was able to do in terms of giving a voice to people, saying that, OK, If you are not moved to action, you have the moral responsibility to at least speak out wherever you feel injustice is being served.

And I think that he did a great service in that regard and I think that many people today are using that legacy in their opposition to war all around the world.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On this day, when we recognize Martin Luther King, Jr.'s contributions to this country, we decided to talk about his legacy with a diverse group of our regular contributors.

We're talking about how Dr. King's legacy influences civil rights and political struggles. Is there someone who inspires you today and - I don't know. Viviana, do you want to start? Is there someone?

VIVIANA HURTADO: It's really interesting because I've had this discussion with a lot of people in my community, that in our community right now, where arguably immigration is the civil rights firebrand of our generation, that there doesn't seem to be one character, one leader, who's emerged. And, certainly, we had that in the 1960s in the form of the late Cesar Chavez, the late Cesar Chavez, and the living legend, Dolores Huerta.

And somebody said to me, thank goodness there's not one Latino Dr. King. In fact, may there be 10, may there be 100, may there be 1,000. And I see a lot of inspiration in these dreamers, these young kids. Many of them are faceless, but they're out there. They're using social media and they're taking big risks to do what's right for their families, for themselves, for our community and for our nation.

MARTIN: Kai Wright, what about you?

KAI WRIGHT: I actually have to echo that. I think one of the tragic understandings of King is that he was a singular leader and that we should have one today. There were thousands then. I think one of the neat stories of the civil rights movement was in Birmingham when the nation was shocked to see Bull Connor turn his hoses on those young people. They came out on their own. King was in jail.

And the movement had been wrestling with whether or not to bring the kids out, and the kids just came. And they came in wave after wave after wave. And that is one of, arguably, the most important moments in the history of American 20th century, driven not by one man's leadership, but by a bunch of young people showing up.

And I think I similarly would point to the Dream Act kids. I mean, I'm calling them kids. They're not. To the young people who have been, for the last few years, literally risking everything in their lives to stand up and say there's something wrong with our immigration system.

MARTIN: Arsalan Iftikhar?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, being the globalist that I am, I tend to take a more international approach and there are transformational figures. You know, you have Nelson Mandela. The man spent 27 years at Robben Island and was able to come out and ask and beg his society for reconciliation and I think that that is something that is transformational in nature.

MARTIN: Clarke, I'm going to give you the last word.

COOPER: My mentor since I came to Washington as an intern, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the first Cuban American woman elected to Congress. She's Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She also is the first Republican on the LGBT equality caucus and one of the first Republicans to advocate for open service in the military.

She has led by example as someone who has not played identity politics, but has embraced American individualism and has said that equality is a conservative tenet. It does fall within liberty and in responsibility, that having equal access, again, allows people to reach their dreams or not.

So, yeah. So my personal mentor at this time and has been for many years is Congresswoman or Congressista (ph) Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much for spending part of your Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with us and thank you all so much for your insights. R. Clarke Cooper is the executive director of the group, Log Cabin Republicans. It's a group within the Republican Party that advocates for gays and lesbians.

Viviana Hurtado is the blogger-in-chief of the site, The Wise Latina Club. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, author of "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era."

They were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, but with us from NPR in New York, Kai Wright, who is the editorial director of ColorLines.com.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

HURTADO: Thank you, Michel.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.