Today we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His contributions leading the civil rights movement and urging our nation to take some important steps toward full equality and inclusion are well recognized and respected. But his advocacy extended beyond confronting racism, to economic justice, opposition to the Vietnam War, and challenging oppression wherever and whenever it existed. Put more simply, Dr. King’s legacy is not simply about non-violence or speaking about dreams for America; it is about fighting, struggling and speaking truth to power.
Dr. King truly lived his adage that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This principle led Dr. King and his colleagues to travel to Chicago in order to organize protests against City housing policies that explicitly and implicitly supported segregation. Chicago may have been geographically located in the North, but the reception Dr. King received was not any friendlier than of the Deep South – filled with angry and violent protestors.
Challenging Chicago’s white political structure was not an easy task for Dr. King. City Hall – under the leadership of the first Mayor Daley – resisted approving parade and demonstration permits for Dr. King, first when he wanted to march in mostly-white Marquette Park and then when he wanted to hold an outdoor rally at Soldier Field.
One of the precedents cited by the ACLU and our allies to allow for the march and the rally, came from another case originating from Chicago – but with a much different speaker – a racist and hateful priest.
Two decades before King came to Chicago, Terminiello, a defrocked Catholic priest delivered an anti-Semitic and racist speech in another City park. His words were met by protestors who attacked and beat him. Following the beating, the police arrested Terminiello for disturbing the peace. This case made its way to the Supreme Court which said that not only did police err in arresting the speaker, but in fact the Constitution provided that the police had an affirmative obligation to protect the speaker regardless of the content of the speech.
That case later helped secure a permit for a Baptist Minister, an icon of civil rights, to march and rally in Chicago to promote justice, tolerance and inclusion - despite protests against his movement at the time.
Our nation’s history includes numerous examples of how critical it is to protect the rights of those we disagree with, so that we are able to exercise those same rights at a later time. This lesson is critical again today – because free speech and expression has never been more important. As we prepare for the Women’s March this weekend we see in Martin Luther King’s example that these marches and large social movements will be necessary to changing public attitudes and public policies. Today, as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and recall his adages, we also must remember the momentum his movement drew from the power of speech and demonstration.