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The Price of Freedom

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It depends on who you are, where you live, the color of your skin and more

These days, if you hear or read about the concept of “the price of freedom,” generally the context of the discussion is the ongoing war against terrorism. The idea being conveyed is that we are sending a precious resource, our armed men and women, into a dangerous situation to protect the freedom and liberties we value so highly. But I think this broad concept is somewhat easier for Americans to grasp and endorse because we are in the very fortunate position of being a strong country with vast resources, both economic and military, and we are fighting an enemy on foreign soil. When an enemy lies closer to home, or is integrated into one’s history, one’s culture, or one’s religion, the price for freedom becomes a very complex question about a society’s social fabric.

     Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday had been celebrated by the black community each year since 1968 when he was assassinated in a motel in Memphis, TN, on April 4th. The designation of the third Monday in January as a federal holiday was made official by the passing of federal legislation in 1983 under President Reagan. The holiday is for the purpose of celebrating King’s birth and life, and his contributions to the civil rights movement. Although the legislation was passed in 1983, it was not until 1986 that the first federal celebration was held. This year's theme is "Remember! Celebrate! Act! A Day On Not A Day Off!"

    MLK Jr. gained his earliest notoriety during the Montgomery bus strikes in 1955. It was actually Rosa Parks, an elderly black woman, who refused to move to the back of the bus for a much younger white man, who proved to be the catalyst for the very successful boycott that ensued. King led the charge to motivate people to participate and 381 days later the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama's state segregation laws were unconstitutional. Realizing the necessity to leverage the momentum, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in January of 1957 with King as the president. In May of that year, the first mass march was held in Washington, D.C., and over 37,000 people participated.

    Partly in response to the march, on September 9, 1957, Congress created the Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, an official body with the authority to investigate voting irregularities.

    Dr. King continued his work traveling abroad, assisting in voter registration, writing and speaking. In 1963 the infamous riots in Birmingham, Alabama occurred when the public and the police exploded in response to a march held by King. It was the first time there was television coverage, as the media began to document the reactionary outbreaks of white on black. In August of 1963 King made his famous "I have a dream" speech and in 1964 King was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

    But King was not the only black leader to emerge at that time and his philosophy of civil disobedience, rooted in his Baptist biblical upbringing, was starkly contrasted to the beliefs and statements of Malcolm X.     Like King, Malcolm X knew that the injustices, both overt and covert, being inflicted had to be addressed with mass action. However, Malcolm X had lived a life that from the beginning was rooted in violence against his family and his person. His mother was raped by a white man. His father was run over by a car. His family's home was burned to the ground. Malcolm X began himself to lead a life of crime which resulted in serving three terms in prison. While in prison he discovered the teachings of NOI (Nation of Islam) through the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X did not believe in integration but in black separatism. He verbally clashed with King in the philosophical debate of how to end police brutality and racism. In 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated. He was considered by many to be brilliant, but his decision to reject any kind of conciliatory position made him appear far more dangerous to a country grappling with its guilt, frustration and fear.

    Each year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) holds a annual summit on the economic condition of black and colored people. The summit is much like the evaluation we each personally conduct at the beginning of a new year, taking stock of our accomplishments and failures, our supporters and our detractors. But instead of measuring the sum of the individual, the focus is on the prospects of the whole community. And no doubt each year there are accomplishments to be identified. Incrementally, more minorities have upper management jobs in corporate environments. There is now not just one but three black National Football League coaches. And promotions for minority women have improved. But contrast that with the recent drop in African American college enrollment, the percentage of black men to white men incarcerated, and the number of minorities living at or below the poverty level and the accomplishments noted are quickly and  comparatively diminished.

    The challenges that African Americans face lie in the composition of our economic and political institutions. Fundamentally, while we argue about constitutional rights being the base line for providing all Americans equal opportunity, there is no question that the mechanics of our government, the specifics of our legislation, and the reality of our economy does not reconcile with our democratic beliefs. We are not all in agreement that equal rights are even what should be in place. There is no shortage of individuals, the vociferous minority, that are busy denying historical events, sending flyers questioning the humanity of specific religions, and voicing their concerns that if more rights are given to anyone, surely those rights must be taken away from someone else. In our most recent national election it was reported that roadblocks were set up in certain (predominantly black) polling precincts in Florida. We ended up with a President, but also gained a great deal of emotional overhead, our very strongest sentiments being summoned for debate, as the Supreme Court issued a ruling that stated recounting votes was not in the country's best interest.

    What price do we pay for our economic freedom? I guess it depends on who you are. It depends on where you live. It depends on what language you speak, on what level of education you have acquired, on what gender you are, what religion you choose to follow, what cultural icons you value, what expectations you have. In some respects it depends on how willing you are to question our current condition of humanity. When we go to war, every man and woman is equal - equally vulnerable and equally powerful, and they choose to pay a very dear price for our freedom. It would be nice if we could figure out as a nation how to apply that same principle toward giving each man, woman and children the economic freedom to achieve their full potential, applying the same democratic principles we hold so dear that we would send our own flesh and blood away to fight.


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Carol Curtis

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