Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, Civil Disobedience, and MLK’s “I Have Dream” Speech

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Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 08/28/1963 (National Archives, OPA)

Today (Monday, January 20, 2014) is the federal holiday celebration in the United States of the birthday of renowned civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Although Dr. King’s birthday anniversary is actually on January 15 (b. 1929, d. 1968) the holiday is celebrated the third Monday of every January.

The call for a national holiday to honor Dr. King’s legacy began soon after his assassination in 1968.  United States House of Representatives Congressperson John Conyers of Michigan introduced legislation to establish the holiday four days after Dr. King was assassinated, but Congress took no action on the bill. In the years that followed, millions of people signed petitions in support of the holiday. Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King testified before Congress multiple times, calling for a federally recognized day to honor the life and work of her late husband.

In 1980, Stevie Wonder released a song, “Happy Birthday,” which became both a hit and a rallying cry for supporters of the holiday, and civil rights marches in Washington in 1982 and 1983 amplify the mission. A bill to establish the holiday successfully passed through both houses of Congress in 1983, and on November 20, 1983, it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was celebrated in 1986.

The Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., was unveiled in 2011.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., Stone of Hope Memorial (National Park Service)

 Civil Disobedience

Much has been written about Dr. King and the civil rights movement of the sixties, including Dr. King’s positions on the fights against racism, poverty, and war. (Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.) Dr. King was influenced in his philosophy and theology of non-violent civil disobedience by Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s influential 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” eventually renamed “Essay on The Duty of Civil Disobedience” is available as a free book torrent in the public domain. At the time, examples of engaging in civil disobedience included: sitting at a lunch counter, not being forced to ride in the back of the bus and being a Freedom Rider, among others.

Even more recent examples of civil disobedience might include, in no particular order:

  • Same gender persons disobeying prohibitions until there was or will be recognition of their unions.
  • Efforts to make information freely available (information and knowledge being a basis of the ability to be free), such as by:
    • Daniel Ellsberg for leaking The Pentagon Papers ( officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”) to the press, which the government tried to stop from publishing (Beginning on June 13, 1971, the New York Times published a series of daily articles based on the information contained in the Pentagon Papers. After the third article, the U.S. Department of Justice got a temporary restraining order against further publication of the material, arguing that it was detrimental to U.S. national security. The Times and the Washington Post joined forces to fight the court battle, and on June 30 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the government had failed to prove harm to national security, and that publication of the papers was justified under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.),
    • The 8 men and women who burglarized an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and discovered evidence that the FBI was spying on Americans without probable cause (including, coincidentally enough, material on and about Dr. King, including a letter threatening to expose Dr. King as a fraud),
    • The efforts of Aaron Schwartz to make certain publicly funded information – such as court opinions, rulings and filings, and federally funded research papers – available over the internet for free (or in the eyes of some, breaking laws),
    • Edward Snowden exposing much of what he has exposed (or committing treason in the eyes of some) about information collected by the National Security Agency,
    • Forming a political party around changing the status quo regarding information and copyright (Pirate parties support civil rights, direct democracy and participation in government, reform of copyright and patent law, free sharing of knowledge (open content), information privacy, transparency, freedom of information and network neutrality according to Wikipedia
    • Forming a religion around information and copyright

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service

What is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service?

In 1994, Congress designated the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday as a national day of service and charged the Corporation for National and Community Service with leading this effort. Taking place each year on the third Monday in January, the MLK Day of Service is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service – a “day on, not a day off.” The MLK Day of Service is a part of United We Serve, the President’s national call to service initiative. It calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems. The MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community”

Why Serve on MLK Day of Service?

Dr. King believed in a nation of freedom and justice for all, and encouraged all citizens to live up to the purpose and potential of America by applying the principles of nonviolence to make this country a better place to live—creating the Beloved Community.

The MLK Day of Service is a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. That service may meet a tangible need, or it may meet a need of the spirit. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.

The “I Have a Dream” speech

Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream Speech” was delivered fifty years ago this last August, in 1963  in Washington, D.C. The speech is still controlled by copyright laws and isn’t available in the public domain. Even though Dr. King is purported to have been inspired by others, ad libbed and  borrowed from works authored by others, his estate and the foundation that controls his legacy have tightly controlled the exhibition, display, performance, reproduction, and distribution of the speech in whole. Pieces are used under the fair use principles set out in section 107 of the copyright code, as interpreted by various courts, or the whole of it or larger pieces are used by companies paying big licensing fees. Many leading copyright scholars believe that the speech will enter the public domain in 2038. Until then, a person can look at the written words from the National Archive, or buy an audio or video recording copy of the speech for his or her own personal use for about $20.00. This site appears to have an official version when you click on “media”.

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