Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago. But as America pays tribute to him and his peaceful fight for equality, convulsions of racism continue to wrack the country.
Despite the advances of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, black students at the University of Utah say the challenges awaiting them are as great as ever.
Lack of education, housing and opportunity, combined with poverty and police brutality, remain obstacles for people of color in the United States, five decades after King was gunned down in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
The struggle has now been taken up by Black Lives Matter, football player Colin Kaepernick and other athletes, but no one of King’s stature has emerged to lead.
After a recent meeting of the university’s Black Student Union this week, young black people considered King’s legacy and the state of civil rights today.
Barbara Kufiadan, 20, who is majoring in political science, said King stands out as a “monolithic figure” for civil rights. Nonetheless, she does not always feel welcome in her own country.
“I don’t feel like we’ve come that far,” she said. “We’re still fighting systematic oppression that keeps black people down.”
King should not be remembered as a martyr, said Amerique Phillips, 19, but rather as an activist who “tried to correct racist legislation.”
“He made a difference as to where we can start,” said the sociology major. “Today, we’re trying to close the loopholes. We need to continue to do what we’re doing, working for civil rights.”
King was a rebel, and that is how he should be remembered, said Elom Amematsra, a 21-year-old math and physics major.
At the onset of the civil rights movement, King was seen by many in a negative light, not the historic American figure that he is today. Some, including J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, considered him a communist leader. In the last year of his life, King was abandoned by former allies, criticized by the government and the media when he decried the war in Vietnam.
King is lionized for nonviolence in a manner that now seems sanitized, Amematsra said. “But that is not how he should be remembered. He had the guts to speak up and challenge things. They are leaving that out — the rebellious nature of MLK.”
King and his associates in the civil rights movement walked a dangerous road, as was seen in Birmingham and Selma, Ala., among other places. The day before his death, King seemed to foretell the nearing end in a Memphis speech:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
The nation has made progress toward equal rights, Amematsra said. But there is yet a lot to accomplish before King’s Promised Land is realized.
“College students and upper-class black people are not doing that,” Amematsra said of forwarding the struggle. “We should be much further, but we don’t have the leadership to go to.”
For black people, civil rights must be an ongoing effort, he noted.
“We should never become complacent about how we are treated,” Amematsra said. “You should always be vigilant about protecting your rights.”
King’s legacy of a nonviolent movement “is the positive side of civil rights. He’s the foundation,” said Arnold Gatoro, 19, a biomedical science major and business minor. But there are other black leaders we should listen to, he said of figures such as Louis Farrakhan and the late Malcolm X .
The civil rights movement needs to be reignited, he said. Across the country, black people are marginalized and imprisoned.
“I’m lucky to be in this position” as a college student, Gatoro said. “According to the numbers, we’re not supposed to be here. We’re supposed to be in prison.”
Black people constantly must be on guard in a racist country, he said.
“I have to check my white counterparts on what is appropriate. It’s stressful but important to continuously do that,” Gatoro said. “Many people don’t understand what we’re up against. A white person will never understand what it’s like to be black.”
If that weren’t enough, he noted, President Donald Trump is making civil rights and equal opportunity even more difficult for minorities.
“It’s amazing how much racism he is inspiring. And it’s certain to grow and grow,” Gatoro said. “But things have to get really bad before things can change.”