A Celebration of Legacy and Hope for Progress to Come

The role of immigrants in America has been central in shaping our national character as well as our economy.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is important to reflect on how civil and human rights have enhanced opportunity for the benefit of the entire American mosaic. We have come far, but much remains to be done.

Whether through forced or voluntary migration, the role of immigrants in America has been central in shaping our national character as well as our economy. A decade ago, Rev. Harvey Clemons Jr., the pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Houston, Texas connected immigration and civil rights issues as aligned measures that reflect the fight for human dignity and the willingness of facing risk to work for a better future. National opinion supports our acceptance of modern immigration. In a 2019 Gallup poll, 76 percent of Americans support immigration as beneficial to our country and 81 percent support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that meet certain requirements.

As a corollary to the widely held support of immigration, most Americans firmly believe that immigration laws should be enforced. These two beliefs should not be in conflict, however, the dysfunction of America’s immigration system and the inability of policymakers to fairly fix it have created a crisis now expressed in the draconian and cruel practices affecting migrants in search of a better future in the United States. These current practices erode not only our national character, but potentially our economy as well.

In 1968, a few short months before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a telegram to encourage Cesar Chavez who was fasting to protest working and other conditions of California’s agricultural workers, an economic engine of that state.

In an excerpt of this telegram, King wrote:

You stand today as a living example of the Ghandian tradition with its
great force for social progress and its healing spiritual powers.  My
colleagues and I commend you for your bravery, salute you for your
indefatigable work against poverty, and injustice, and pray for your
health and your continuing service as one of the outstanding men of
America.  The plight of your people and ours is so grave that we all
desperately need the inspiring example and effective leadership you
have given.

King and Chavez never met, but they followed each other’s actions and movements. King drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to oppression through the force of truth and nonviolence. Caesar Chavez was inspired by King, Gandhi, and the teachings of the Catholic Church on social justice, particularly Saint Francis of Assisi.

Thus, leaders with separate cultural identities shaped fundamental ideas on social justice, civil and human rights, and progress, buttressed by a central recognition that risk is necessary to effectuate a better future.

Although policymakers are increasingly averse to risk, progress is made within grassroots movements and when goals are supported by incentives, such as the business community’s focus on inclusion and diversity. Inclusion is certainly the right thing to do, but in recent years, the business community has focused on empirical evidence that diverse teams create better business organizations. Employees and customers now demand inclusive organizations and socially conscious organizations. The business community has also advocated for reforms in immigration policy that spur economic growth and job creation in the United States, particularly on behalf of Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status recipients, highly skilled, and seasonal workers.

Caesar Chavez’s work in California resulted in legislation that protected the rights of California’s agricultural farmworkers.  The civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King laid important groundwork for the continued march toward social justice and economic opportunity.

This week as we pause to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us consider Dr. King’s legacy as one that can still move our country forward. The migration patterns of African Americans from the South to Northern cities, and struggle for civil rights laid trails for people who now struggle to be treated with human dignity. Our county was built on patterns of migration and the economic benefits inherent within. The link between civil and human rights and economic growth is a key aspect of American progress and of our national character.

While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a movement during his lifetime with courage and leadership, his impact on civil and human rights lives on. Let us continue to fight for justice, equality, and opportunity with the same dedication.

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