Thank You, Dr. King! Examining Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legal Legacy

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Today our nation celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We mostly remember Dr. King for his contributions to the civil rights movement. His influence is so far-reaching that I don’t know a single person who cannot quote at least one line from his “I have a dream” speech. But that wasn’t his only contribution to the movement.

With peaceful protests, riveting speeches, and charisma, Dr. King set us on the path towards equality. His “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” defends his methods and gives us greater insight into his thoughts on the movement. In it, he said, “[w]e are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Before his death in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired legislative changes that affect us all to this day.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and The Civil Rights Act of 1964

While not the first civil rights bill passed in the USA, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 laid the foundation for the basic rights we enjoy today. The 1964 Act outlawed employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion.

President John F. Kennedy championed this bill before his death. President Lyndon B. Johnson worked hard to get the bill passed after JFK’s assassination. By 1964, Dr. King’s message gained enough momentum that previously apathetic members of society began to take note and support his cause.

The support turned into pressure on Congress when three grassroots activists disappeared on June 21, 1964, in Mississippi. Congress passed the bill two days ahead of schedule after social pressure to seek justice and equality reached a boiling point.

Dr. King attended the bill signing ceremony on July 2, 1964. “It was a great moment,” Dr. King said, “something like the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.”

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The Butterfly Effect

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s influence continues to affect us even today. While both inequality and discrimination still exist, many improvements have been made.

Instead of talking about segregation, we’re talking about injustices in the criminal justice system. Employment inequality also looks beyond race-based inequality. Now we can talk about microaggressions and gender or sexuality-based discrimination as well. The #metoo movement wouldn’t exist if our nation was still grappling with 1960’s style racism and inequality.

We still don’t have a perfect system.

And, it would be disingenuous to say that Dr. King advanced the civil rights movement alone. The movement succeeded because lots of people did their part to spread its message.

But the remnants of Dr. King’s legacy live on (in large part thanks to the efforts of his late wife, Coretta Scott King). We celebrate Dr. King as a visionary that saw a better future for America than most could see at the time. As time goes on, and large, obvious injustices are corrected, we can focus on smaller, less-obvious injustices that continue to affect us all directly and indirectly.

Now, that is a legacy worth celebrating.


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