Archived: Martin Luther King and the Chicano Movement

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This week our country and the world celebrate the birth, life and legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, a man for all seasons and all people. It is very fortunate that this commemoration comes at the beginning of the year to remind and strengthen our resolve to work for the betterment of our lives, individual and collective in the coming year. Though his life was cut woefully short, there is so much to recall of his myriad of contributions. I’d like to share some memories related to Dr. King’s work in regard to the Chicano Movement, the Mexican American struggles for justice and peace during Kings’ time.

In the months before his death April 4, 1968 at the hands of US racism, King was spearheading the mobilization of a poor people’s campaign during a critical presidential election year in our country. It was meant to be an independent peoples clarion call for reestablishing and strengthening the “war on poverty” instead of continuing the war in Vietnam. He also saw extending the consciousness of the need for civil and economic justice to other racially and nationally oppressed and all the poor. Dramatically and meaningfully, he reached out to the Chicano movement and began meeting with key militant grassroots leaders, notably Bert Corona, Corky Gonzales and Reies Tijerina, to be involved on the ground floor of the poor peoples’ campaign.

In calling out to these leaders, King knew what he was doing. I have to admit that I, as a student leader at UCLA at the time, was not familiar with their names as the mass media afforded little coverage of the growing movements Corona, Gonzalez and Tijerina were leading. Indeed, they were either blackballed or disparaged by the corporate media. King knew though that they were real leaders on burning issues. He also knew that reaching out to the Chicano movement centered in the Southwest would tremendously empower the nationwide struggles for justice and peace for that key election year and the future. King not only talked the talk, he walked the walk.

King reached out to Chicanos in many other ways. He publicly and privately supported the efforts of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the farm worker union movement they were building. In the Spring of 1963, while crossing the country to build the March on Washington where he gave his “I have a dream” speech, King made a special move towards Mexican Americans when he came to Los Angeles. A large rally of 20,000 or more came to hear him at L.A.’s Wrigley Field (then home of the minor league Los Angeles Angels and now the site of Jackie Robinson Park).

Among the special guests were the Mexican American city councilmen of Crystal City Texas who were elected the majority of a previous all white local government in rural South Texas that year. This clearly signaled that the voting and other civil rights of that historic campaign were for Mexican Americans and other minorities along with African Americans.

The impact of King’s work on the movement for social justice of Chicanos is incalculable. For example, in the student elections at my high school, Benjamin Franklin in Highland Park, in the fall after King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, for the first time a Mexican American was elected president, even though we were only about 1/4 of the students. Indeed, the vice president and the “Boys League” president were also Mexican Americans. I was elected president, Jorge Aguinaga vice president, and Rudy Beas, Boys League president. Jorge and I got involved in the Chicano movement later at UCLA as members of the United Mexican American Students, Rudy died in Vietnam.

Kings birthday comes at the time the Congress returns to session and when his legacy is much needed to influence the House and Senate. The legacy is already there in key ways. The Voting Right Act has made possible a large Congressional Black Caucus, along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Asian Pacific America Caucus that today work together as the “Tri-Caucus”. On many issues, they are joined by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which makes for the “Quad Caucus”. These are very important components of a people’s power base for progressive change that can be built on this year and make a difference on winning gains on the final health care reform bill, for immigrant and labor rights, jobs, environmental survival, money for peace and not war and many other issues.
As could be expected, the corporate media is building a mood of pessimism about the possibilities for progressive change; they did so for King and the movements he led, but he was undaunted and we shouldn’t be in this year’s struggles. Si Se Puede! ¡Feliz cumpleaños Martin!

Rosalio Munoz of Los Angeles is a lifelong activist and writer involved in the progressive movements for peace and justice. This opinion piece was first published on-line at www.latinola.com/story.php?story=8235.

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