Room 473-B
State House
Boston, MA 02133
Telephone: (617) 722-2230
District Office
585A Main St.
Winchester, MA 01890
Telephone: (617) 721-7285 or (617) 438-7185

A View from the Hill

CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240;


On August 28, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and uttered some of the most memorable words in American history. Poised in front of the man who had freed the slaves only a century before, Dr. King told the nation that African Americans were still crippled by the "manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." They lived on a "lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," and were denied the promise of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that was guaranteed by the Founding Fathers. Even after a hundred years of Emancipation, he said, the "Negro" still was not free.

In light of such conditions, Dr. King voiced his dream of a better future with the thousands of Americans who had come to hear it. It was a dream of an America that would live up to its creed that all men were created equal, a place where people would not be "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Justice would exist for every man, woman, and child, regardless of any qualifying characteristic. No one would be denied the opportunity to fully achieve his or her potential in life. The only limitation facing people would be the scope of their own imaginations and ambitions.

Reverend King knew only too well that this grand vision would not be realized on its own. Standing in the way of his dream was a formidable wall of racism that was entrenched in every corner of the nation. It was in the government, in the court system, and in the hearts of everyday citizens.

Knocking down this wall required that people rise up together in opposition and fight for their rights. They had to march, protest, boycott, and do whatever else was necessary to facilitate change in the system. Dr. King championed such resistance, urging people to peacefully disobey the laws that were oppressing them. For this, he often spent the duration of his visits to southern states in jail.

Bricks, bars, and mortar did not stop Dr. King, nor did they hinder the movement that he was so integral in mobilizing. He understood that incarceration would be the natural consequence of his efforts to challenge the laws of an unjust system. It was part of his broader plan of nonviolent resistance that was to "shake the foundations" of the nation.

People on both sides of the spectrum challenged such an approach. The Black Panthers, for example, felt that taking up arms would be a better way to get the attention of the American people. King, they thought, was too passive. On the other end, there were people like Senator Jesse Helms (R- North Carolina), who scorned the audacity of King's questioning of established authority. Senator Helms called Reverend King a "Communist" and said his mission was "anti-American."

Despite this harsh criticism, Dr. King remained steadfast in his commitment to change the system in a peaceful manner. He advocated a "middle way," insisting that violence was a "descending downward spiral ending in destruction for all," and passivity only kept people shackled in the chains of racism and segregation.

Furthermore, he noted that his method was steeped in the great democratic tradition of the United States. Nonviolent protest, in which people broke the law "openly and lovingly," to use King's words, was the people's way of telling the government that it was necessary to change its ways. It was very much in accordance with the principles our country was founded upon. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote in the Declaration of Independence that whenever a government became destructive of the ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, "it is the right of people to alter or abolish it." Following such principles made Martin Luther King, Jr. one of the most patriotic Americans to have ever lived.

King's love for his country, and his determination to make it a better place, has earned him a special place in our history. Although his life was cut tragically short, we take the time to honor him, and thousands of others who gave of themselves to the cause of justice, on the third Monday of every January.

King is the only American besides George Washington to have a national holiday designated for his birthday (others, like Lincoln, are only celebrated in certain states). Internationally, he is one of the few social leaders to be honored with a holiday, and unique in that he was a member of a minority group. Such a phenomenon attests to the important contribution that Dr. King made to the people of the United States.

While it is not possible to ever repay the debt of gratitude we owe Dr. King, we can honor him and the movement he championed by keeping his dream alive today. Much work still remains to be done to break down both the visible and invisible walls that continue to separate people from one another.

In Massachusetts, we have taken every opportunity to ensure that the rights of all people are respected. We have passed volumes of legislation to guarantee fair procedures for everyone, and have set up agencies to vigorously enforce the standards of fairness and equality we have set. Chapters 151B and 272 of the General Laws, for example, encompass the Commonwealth's anti-discrimination laws, combined with the Hate Crimes Reporting Act of 1990, and the Hate Crimes Penalty Act as expanded and strengthened by the legislature in 1996.

To effectively implement and enforce this legislation, the state government has created agencies such as the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes. Through their tireless efforts, major steps have been taken to combat the injustices decried by Reverend King over 30 years ago.

Passing legislation, however, is only part of the solution. Since racism is embedded in the society itself, it must be dealt with on that level. Dr. King pushed for change not only from the top down, but from the bottom up and thus, we should continue his struggle in the heart and soul of the American people.

Such an approach is a formidable task because it involves fundamentally changing the way people think. Many might resist a challenge to the thoughts and beliefs they have held all their lives. But change they must, for self-reflection and improvement are what have made this country last as long as it has. That was the intention of the Founding Fathers, for they knew that a society that refused to bend would most certainly break.

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