As we look forward to another Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and prepare to inaugurate our first African American president to a second term, I'd like to talk about the civil rights movement and what it meant to my generation.

It was the inspiration for everything that followed, including the Latino, Asian, peace, women's, student, environmental and LGBT movements. Our country is immeasurably better off for all of them, but the civil rights movement was the most important of all because it tackled America's original sin -- the sin of slavery and its successor under a different name, Jim Crow.

Unlike other immigrants, Africans didn't come here looking for freedom or opportunity. They were kidnapped and transported here in slave ships. As many as half died during the voyage, but the slavers still made a handsome profit. And if there was a storm, so much the better: They could simply toss the slaves overboard and get full reimbursement from the insurance companies for their lost "cargo."

Here in America, the slaves were at their masters' mercy. If he wanted to rape them, kill them or sell their children, he could. And the government would back him up. That was supposed to end with the Civil War, but it didn't. Historians like to say that the North won the war but the South won the peace.


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When I was a kid in the 1950s, segregation was the law of the land, and not just in the South. Even liberal Berkeley didn't desegregate its schools until 1968.

But it was worst in the South. Working hand-in-hand with the elected authorities, the Ku Klux Klan was conducting a reign of terror against any African Americans who had the temerity to ask for their rights.

But, as Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. With no weapons to counter the KKK's armed terror, the brave pioneers of the civil rights movement turned to the only tools they had: marches, sit-ins and anything else they could think of to hold a mirror up to the country and force the American people to watch what was being done in their name.

There was a terrible cost: beatings, bombings, arsons and countless murders. And instead of going after the Klan, the FBI went after Dr. King, even trying to drive him to suicide by threatening to reveal evidence of his extramarital affairs. But, like the early Christians, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. On election night 2008, 40 years after Dr. King died, Barack Obama was elected our first African American president. And I cried tears of joy.

"I can't help it," I explained. "I've waited so long for this (expletive deleted) to be over."

I was ridiculously naive, of course. The hateful reaction to Obama's presidency over the last four years shows that racism is very much alive in America. But he still won despite it. And that means racism might still be alive but it's far from well, especially among the younger generation.

So God bless Martin Luther King's memory. He not only made life better for African Americans, he made my life better, too. Thanks, Dr. King.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.