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Statement by EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday, 2020

The 15-year-old high school junior had every reason to be pleased as he boarded the bus to take him from his Atlanta home for a long journey. After all, he had won an oratorical contest sponsored by the black Elks of his community, and thus had won the right to represent Washington High School at the statewide contest held at First Baptist Church in Dublin, Georgia, hours away. The theme of both contests was "The Negro and the Constitution."

But the young man's proud moment was jarred by the ugly hand of bigotry. Both the student and his teacher - both African Americans -- were told by the driver to surrender their seats to newly boarding white passengers. The budding young orator resisted at first, but his teacher finally persuaded him to leave his seat. They say it wasn't easy to calm the righteous rage the young man must have felt - as well as the cruel irony, considering what he was traveling to do. So they both stood, emotionally bloodied, but unbowed - for several hours during the long ride.

That was the American South in 1944, as the United States and its Allies were combating fascism and bigotry all over the world. Everyone was familiar with those outrageous realities, but that realistic awareness can't have salved the pain much.

Despite the crushing humiliation - or perhaps strengthened by it - the young student proceeded with his mission and delivered his award-winning speech, entitled "The Negro and the Constitution." Here are some excerpts:

"… America gave its full pledge of freedom seventy-five years ago. Slavery has been a strange paradox in a nation founded on the principles that all men are created free and equal. Finally after tumult and war, the nation in 1865 took a new stand-freedom for all people. The new order was backed by amendments to the national constitution making it the fundamental law that thenceforth there should be no discrimination anywhere in the 'land of the free' on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

"… We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flout the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule. We cannot come to full prosperity with one great group so ill-delayed that it cannot buy goods. So as we gird ourselves to defend democracy from foreign attack, let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity for all people.

"… Today thirteen million black sons and daughters of our forefathers continue the fight for the translation of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments from writing on the printed page to an actuality.

"… The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff. Already closer understanding links Saxon and Freedman in mutual sympathy.

"… America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work he left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon-a Negro-and yet a man!"

What a heart for one so young! And what a mind! How many of us could have written so majestically at age 15? If you hadn't yet figured out that this young prodigy's name was Martin Luther King, Jr., you probably recognized in his speech the seeds of ideas and themes - already fruit-bearing even back then - that would keep growing into glorious fruition as the great man's oration for the ages at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and other masterpieces. 

And that hurtful experience on the bus would morph into a blessing as well. Reverend King would first come into national prominence in 1955 by leading a boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system - over racial segregation in public transit and making black people give up their seats to whites. 

Of course, the world, America and its civil rights epic have changed much in the ensuing 75 years since young Martin Luther King, Jr. took that stage. Sadly, of course, many Americans are still too often mistreated , and so the crusade for equal opportunity must go on. 

But it's no longer a matter of "Negroes" or "Freedmen" vis-à-vis "Saxons." Today we see Asians, Hispanics, and people of all national origins and religions, as well as many others, standing up for fair and equal treatment. 

And we at the EEOC continue to stand proudly at the forefront of that struggle. For those of you who wish you'd been there with Dr. King on one of his walks for justice - perhaps you hadn't been born yet! - please remember that if you're marching with the EEOC, you're marching with Dr. King.

On January 20th we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday. Let's all take renewed pride in our own weighty part of America's ongoing struggle to free us all from injustice - to make us all "freedmen."