We owe it to the Civil Rights Movement

By Nitya Venkataraman (Published in January 2007)

Nitya is a producer for ABC News in Washington DC. She grew up in the eastern suburbs and went  to schools Plum Boro  and Murrysville and CMU.  

November was a month of significant groundbreaking in Washington. First, after 12 years, a Democratic majority swept the House and Senate. Then, on November 13, the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr joined the officially recognized ranks of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson in the last available space of the National Mall.

“By its presence in this place it will unite the men who declared the promise of America and defended the promise of America with the man who redeemed the promise of America,” declared President Bush addressing the 5000-plus crowd assembled on a cold and rainy Monday to watch their dream of Dr. King’s monument become a reality.

The President was joined by former President Bill Clinton who signed  legislation in 1996 authorizing the memorial; author Maya Angelou; Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill); business and political leaders of the African-American community; and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey credited Dr. King’s vision with allowing her “a voice that can be heard.” “I do not take that for granted, not for one breath, not for one breath,” Winfrey emphasized, “I live in state of reverence for where I have come from, and the price that was paid for me to be here.”

As Indian-Americans, we owe both the memorialized leader and the nameless, faceless masses of the American Civil Rights Movement that reverence, too. “Thanks to the civil rights struggles of those who have come before us,” said Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, “South Asians can look to laws and values that protect the interests of minorities, women and immigrants.”

Think about it: The Barred Zone Act (1917) and the “Thind Decision” (1923) blocked South Asian immigration into the USA. In the 1930s, a group of successful South Asian professionals began to lobby the US government to open its immigration policy to India and though President Roosevelt was receptive, the United States was an ally of Britain, and the bill regarding South Asian immigration wasn’t passed until 1946.

Sixteen years later, in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation is unconstitutional. The next year 200,000 people marched to Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act, Equal Employment and Equal Housing Acts under president Lyndo Johnson.

We’ve come a long way, certainly: Newly-elected Rep. Jason Altmire  attended  a sit-down luncheon with the South Asian women in Pittsburgh before the November elections; Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa) held a Pittsburgh-area fundraiser courting the South Asian vote.

In doing so, both acknowledged the presence, influence, history and contributions of South Asian Americans in this country and in their respective voting districts.

But after a summer caught on tape of thinly veiled racially insensitive comments by Sen. Joseph Biden (D) on the abundance of Indian  convenience store owners in Delawre and Republican Sen. George Allen’s infamous Macaca comments referring an Indian-American volunteer of his opponent, it’s evident that to some in the US, South Asians are still outsiders, no matter how educated, wealthy or seemingly American they are.

Not long ago — in a climate of hate and anti-minority sentiment — political blunders like those made this summer might not have been taken so seriously. But in 2006, because of laws that protect us and a social decency that defends us, our outrage is communicated and addressed, even influencing the outcome of a local election.

So, it is important during this Martin Luther King Day in February to take part in community events to honor the struggles of those people of color who marched before us, whose shoulders we stand on.  We need to remember this as we achieve more than what was ever thought possible.

“As we build our community in America,” SAALT’s Iyer emphasized, “We must also ensure that we stand up for the rights of all minorities and people of color.” Remembering, of course, that we stand today because less than five decades ago they stood for us.

Editor’s note: February is Black History Month.Make it a point to attend community events where you live.  If possible, also make small contributions to local community events and  charities that help the socially and economically disadvanged children.  — END


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