Local Civil Rights Leaders Reflect On 50 Years Since MLK Gave 'I Have A Dream' Speech

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In the fifty years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, several Bay Area civil rights advocates believe there has been some progress of racial equality, but the battle is far from done.

On this day in 1964, King was one of a series of speakers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of thousands rallied to demand equal rights, job opportunities and other racial issues.

The speech, which included the legendary line, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," still influences leaders today, Oakland-based civil rights attorney John Burris said.

"The impact on me has been profound," the lawyer said. "He has contributed to the life that I've lived."

He said he keeps pictures of King at his home and office to remind him to be as empathetic as the civil rights leaders.

"He judged based upon on who people were," Burris said. "I've used that as a guidepost."

Burris represented the family of Oscar Grant III, a black 22-year-old Hayward man who was shot in the back while unarmed on a BART platform by a white transit police officer on New Year's Eve 2009.

He said the Grant shooting and killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012 were societal setbacks.

Burris called today a milestone with King's words continuing as a "guiding light" for the next generation championing for equality.

"Race is still a significant issue in this country and unresolved," he said.

He noted there is ongoing racial disparity in the justice system, which includes racial profiling, higher African-American and other minority incarceration rates, higher death penalty sentences and instances of implementing three-strikes laws.

"Those disparities have powerful consequences on families," Burris said. "It keeps people from being able to participate in the marketplace for jobs."

Looking to the next fifty years, Burris said voting rights for minorities have to be protected, otherwise "real progress cannot be made."

Oren Sellstrom, legal director at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, echoed those sentiments about voting rights.

He said that although "no doubt progress has been made" there's "no doubt we've got a lot more work in this country."

A key area he said is restoring voting rights to protect all citizens and their ability to go to the polls.

"The recent (U.S. Supreme Court) decision essentially gutted one of the crown jewels of the civil rights movement," he said.

In June the high court dismantled a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"The words that (King) spoke 50 years ago ring true today," he said.

He said the national dialogue has continued to revolve around racial issues including voting rights, affirmative action and most recently the Trayvon Martin shooting and trial.

"We've got a long way to go until we've got full equality in this country," he said.

He noted that while there has been progress in other fronts, the over-incarceration of black men and other minority groups, is going in reverse.

"This has grown worse in the past 50 years," he said. "It has been devastating in many ways."

"If we are going to have true equality we have to stop warehousing entire communities in the criminal justice system," he continued.

Dan Hoffman, who co-founded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Santa Clara Valley 30 years ago, said today is about commemorating King "who was the champion of equal rights" and believed African-Americans are "just as entitled of the fruits of democracy as much as anyone else."

Hoffman recalled King's focus on economic democracy and fighting for jobs for blacks -- an issue that persists today with higher rates of unemployment of African-Americans. Hoffman said racial discrimination that continues today "is simply staggering."

The 87-year-old Saratoga resident said he believes the main issue is promoting respect for everyone who "all deserve the same basic rights."

"I think that it's very difficult for white people like me to fully appreciate the apprehension that African-Americans have throughout the day that they will be disrespected in a minor or major way," Hoffman said.

He said a small percentage of the country is actively fighting to keep minorities from their full rights.

"They do a lot of harm," he said, and pinpointed limited voting rights as debilitating the African-American community.

"All kinds of people who have less money and less status, different colors, nationalities, minorities, poor people," he said. "These are the victims of the effort to restrict voting rights for cheap political advantage."

Hoffman said he believes if King were alive today he would be at the forefront of this issue.

Since King spoke on behalf of freedom and equality, Hoffman said there have been advances for African-Americans whether it is more of a presence in Congress, as political and civic leaders, within the entertainment industry, and other leading fields.

"If (King) was still alive, he'd say: 'You've done well but there's a long way to go,'" Hoffman said.

This afternoon President Barack Obama spoke at the same site where King gave his speech on this day in 1963.

Obama commented on King's legacy and the significance of the anniversary of the civil rights march and rally.

"Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else's laundry or shining somebody else's shoes," Obama said.

He continued, "Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed."

The president remarked on the progress the civil rights movement made not just for African-Americans but all citizens.

"America changed for you and for me," Obama said.


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