“VICTORY IS IN THE STRUGGLE”
Dr. Carlos Muñoz, Jr. is Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the participants in the 1968 high school walk-outs in East Los Angeles. He delivered his address, “Victory is in the Struggle” at the annual MLK & Black History Month Celebration at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth on February 29,2014.
It is a wonderful blessing to be here today as your keynote speaker for your annual MLK and Black History Month event. I want to thank the folks who made it possible.
The title of my talk is “Victory is in the Struggle”. It comes from my forthcoming autobiography. So today I will be sharing parts of it with you to underscore how and why Dr. King had a lot to do in shaping my life as a scholar and activist.
Dr. King inspired me to tap into my inner spirit and courage and to commit myself to the struggles for racial equality, social justice, human rights, and peace. His ideas and vision remain especially meaningful to me today. What he taught me by word and deed back in the 1960s remains the cornerstone for my continuing engagement in the struggles of today.
I believe as Dr. King did, that there cannot be individual freedom unless there is freedom for all the oppressed. He underscored for me that each individual citizen must share the responsibility for the welfare of the poor and the community at large. He set the example that we should be good American citizens, but most importantly, that we must be good citizens of the World. Most importantly, he set the example that we as individual citizens have the responsibility to speak truth to power.
Dr. King had a lot to say but three of the issues that he addressed in his words and deeds rang a bell for me, loud and clear! Those issues were poverty, education, and war.
Dr. King’s commitment to the poor, the salt of the earth, touched me deeply because I grew up in poverty. My parents were poor working class immigrants from Mexico. They were children when they arrived in El Paso, Texas, during the Mexican Revolution that started in 1910 and ended in 1920. My father was born in Valle de Allende, a small mining town in the state of Chihuahua. My mother was born in Cuencame, a small town in a rural area of the state of Durango. It was in those two Mexican states where the revolution against the oppressive Dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz started. My maternal grandfather, Calixto Contreras, was one of the leaders of the revolution. He became one of Pancho Villa’s generals. He was assassinated in 1916, the year my mother was born. She was 2 years old when she arrived in El Paso and ended up in an orphanage. My paternal grandfather did not become a revolutionary, but my grandmother died giving birth to him during the revolution and my father was sent to live with a relative in El Paso when he was 8 years old. My mother and father met when they were teenagers. And I was born in the segregated Mexican American Segundo barrio of El Paso, Texas.
I never got to know my mother because she died of Tuberculosis (TB) when I was 3 years old. My father became an alcoholic after her death. He remarried so I could have a mother. Unfortunately, she was not a good stepmother to me. So I did not have a good family environment. I also lost all contact with my mother’s Contreras family.
My father had learned how to do carpentry during his youth and he got real good at it. But unfortunately due to his alcoholism, he could not keep a steady job and most of the time could not pay our rent on time. We therefore got evicted fairly often from places where we lived. Most unfortunately, food was not plentiful. My diet largely consisted of beans, rice, and tortillas. I had to work starting at the age of 8 to bring food to the table. After school I did errands and odd jobs for people. When I got older, I had a newspaper route, worked as a dishwasher, apprentice house painter, and when in high school, in a lamp factory.
When not working or in school, like other youth with poor and dysfunctional families, I spent more time in the streets where I was exposed to gang life. First in the Segundo barrio and then in East Los Angeles where we moved when I was 12 years old. ELA, as folks call East Los Angeles, was much bigger than the El Paso Segundo barrio and therefore there were more gangs. I was too young to join a gang in El Paso, but when I was in middle school in Los Angeles, I did become a “card carrying” member of one. My gang nick name was “El Chino” –the Chinese guy.
By the time I was fifteen, I had grown tired of the violence in the streets and would hide out in the public library. Instead of hanging out at the corner with gang youth, I would go to baseball fields. Or play basketball at playgrounds. I walked away from my gang. By the time I got to high school, I had become a fairly good athlete and made the school’s varsity football and baseball teams. In addition to sports, I also became involved in student government and became student body president in my senior year.
In terms of academics, I was even a better student than athlete. I graduated with honors from middle school, but when I got to high school I was not given a college track academic major. At that time in history, there was a vulgar racist and sexist tracking system. If you were a male Mexican or African American, you were assigned the “Industrial Arts” major, meaning wood shop or auto shop. If you were a female, you were assigned a Home Economics or Business major. Prior to assigning me a major, the counselor asked me what my father did for a living. I told her that he worked with his hands in construction and she told me “that is a very honorable job, you should follow in his footsteps”. I went home that day to proudly tell my Dad that I would follow in his footsteps and he responded by saying “you go tell that “@@@%%” that I don’t want you to follow in my footsteps, that I want you to work with a pencil!” So I did and she assigned me to a business major because she told me it would prepare me for a job as a used car salesman or clerk who worked with pencils.
My father did not know about college. He got as far as the 7th grade. So all he wanted was for me to become a high school graduate. I made him happy because I did, and with honors. But I was not eligible to attend a 4 year university because as a Business major, I was not placed in algebra, chemistry, or science courses. I had to attend community college to make up those courses. Not having the basic introduction to Algebra, I mistakenly took an advanced algebra class and was getting a D grade toward the end of the semester. It was a blow to me. I lost confidence in my academic ability so I dropped out of college. I thought that maybe it was true that Mexicans did not have the intellectual capacity required for a higher education because we came from a “culture of poverty”. That was the racist image of my people that was promoted by white academics, social workers, and politicians.
Like most poor Mexican American youth, I felt that I did not have any viable options for a good job so I did what most young men in my situation did, join the military, or volunteer for the draft. Before long I was in the U.S. Army a year after graduating from high school.
After basic training at Ford Ord, California, I was sent to the U.S. Army Information School at Fort Slocum in New York, because I scored high in the aptitude test, where I was trained to become a propaganda media specialist in radio and television. I learned all about the “evils” of Communism that were espoused by Karl Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. After completion of my training, I was assigned to G2 (Army Intelligence) at Fort Bliss, Texas. It was located in the outskirts of El Paso, my hometown. I loved that assignment because I was able to reconnect with my father’s family. From there I was transferred to Seoul, South Korea, and assigned to the Headquarters of the Korean Advisory Military Advisory Group (KMAG) G2 section.
During my time there I witnessed a Coup d’ Etat that ended the Democratic government of South Korea and established a military dictatorship that lasted for about 30 years. That event started me wondering why I as a U.S. soldier who had been assigned to defend Democracy in that country, was not being ordered to defend the Democratic government of that country.
After the Coup, I learned U.S. troops were being shipped to Vietnam and I was to told to volunteer to become part of the Vietnam Military Advisory Group (VMAG). I refused. I thought to myself that something was rotten, not in Denmark, as Shakespear had written in one of his plays, but that it was rotten elsewhere. I was only 22 years old at the time, and without a college education, and had not yet developed a critical political consciousness to enable me to articulate a critique of U.S. Foreign Policy, the Coup d’ Etat in South Korea, or the start of the Vietnam War. But it did start making me become more politically aware. After my discharge from the U.S. Army, I returned home determined to return to college. I was classified as a Vietnam War Era Veteran and that made me eligible for the G.I. bill that made it possible for me to pursue a higher education.
As an undergraduate, I learned that Mexican Americans had been segregated throughout the Southwest and forced to attend “Mexican Schools” until 1946, when the Mendez v. Westminster court case ended dejure segregation for Mexican Americans in California. I did not learn about that Case in a college class because the Mexican American experience was not being taught in the college curriculum. I had to learn about it by doing independent research.
The Mendez Case paved the way for the historic Supreme Court 1954 Brown vs. board of education Case that ended the dejure segregation of African American children in the South. Unfortunately, although dejure segregation for Mexican and African American students was terminated by the Mendez and Brown cases, those students continued to experience defacto segregation.
In 1968, as a first year graduate student, I was elected as President of the United Mexican American Students (UMAS) and I decided to contribute to the organizing of high school student non-violent protests against defacto segregation and racism in the barrio schools of East Los Angeles. My inspiration came from Dr. King and his Southern civil rights movement.
Over 10,000 students walked out of the schools during the first week of March in 1968 and brought the nation’s largest school system to a standstill. It was the first time Mexican Americans had marched en masse against racial and ethnic inequality in the history of the United States. The walkouts ignited the start of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement that came to be known as the Chicano Movement.
Several weeks after the student strike. I was one of thirteen Mexican American student and civil rights activists who were indicted and imprisoned for “conspiracy to disrupt the educational system of the city of Los Angeles”.
I was arrested in the early morning hours when I was writing a paper for a graduate seminar on “International Communism”. The police, wearing bullet proof vests, broke into my apartment and with guns drawn ordered me to fall on the floor so they could handcuff me, and asked me where my weapons were located. They ran upstairs looking for weapons and terrorized my family where they had been sleeping. Another officer saw a stack of books on my kitchen table where I was typing my paper. The books were authored by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trostsky. He yelled, “we got the goods on this damn communist agitator!”
I was taken outside and one of the officers told me that he would take the handcuffs off if I wanted to make a run for it. I had a hunch I would be shot. I declined the offer. I was taken to the County Jail and thrown into a cell with men who had been arrested for felony crimes ranging from murder and armed robbery to rape and forging checks. None of them could believe that I was their cellmate for only organizing non violent student protest! I told them I could not believe it either. In fact I was still in shock that I had been arrested.
We each faced 66 years in prison for the felony “crime” of conspiring to organize non-violent protest. Our attorneys decided to take our case to the California Supreme Court. But on the way there, 2 years later, the California State Appellate Court ruled in 1970 that we were innocent by virtue of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I thank God for that amendment and the civil liberties we enjoy every day. If it were not for that amendment, which as you know, grants us freedom of speech, I would be in prison today instead of being here with you.
When I was doing the research for my book on the Chicano Movement, I discovered that those of us who organized the student walkouts had been targets of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO. The COINTELPRO included police and military intelligence agencies that conducted political surveillance of activists identified as the key leaders of other movements, like the Southern Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, and the white Left during the 1960s. Activists were arrested on trumped up charges, undercover agent provocateurs and informants were placed in movement organizations, and character assassination stories about activists were leaked to newspapers throughout the nation. Dr. King was also a target of the COINTELPRO.
Our Chicano Movement adopted Dr. King’s philosophy of Non Violence and echoed his ideas for racial equality and social justice. Our movement connected us directly to the historic common ground of struggle that Mexican Americans have shared with African Americans. The difference is that whereas their ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves, our ancestors became a colonized people within the new boundaries of an expanding American Empire. It was a consequence of the war between Mexico and the United States that ended in 1848 with Mexico losing half of its territory. The northern part of Mexico became what is now known as the Southwestern United States.
From 1848 until the early 20th century, Mexicans were also lynched and could not vote unless they paid a poll tax they could not afford. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, Mexican children could not attend white schools. They were placed in dejure segregated “Mexican Schools”. Mexicans were not allowed in public places like swimming pools and restaurants. Signs reading “No Mexicans Allowed” were common throughout the Southwest during the time those that read “No Colored” and “No dogs” were common in the South.
As was the case with African Americans, Mexicans were considered a racially inferior people. During the 1920s and 30s, when the U.S. Congress engaged in debates over Mexican immigration, white politicians and academics gave testimony that categorized Mexicans as a menace to the dominant culture. The debate pitted those concerned with keeping America “racially pure” and protecting white workers from foreign competition, against those who argued that Mexican cheap labor was essential to capitalism.
Those representing right wing conservatives argued that Mexicans were a threat to the cultural and social fabric of American society. They defined Mexicans as the most “insidious mixture of white, Indian, and Negro blood strains ever produced”. Others argued that Mexicans “were eugenically as low powered as the Negro…. of low mentality, inherently criminal, and therefore a degenerate race that would afflict American society with an embarrassing race problem”.
These racist attitudes and beliefs about Mexicans and other Latinos continue to permeate our society at large. Today you can see that clearly in the state of Arizona and other states that have passed laws or are currently proposing laws that criminalize Latino undocumented immigrants.
In addition to inspiring me to contribute to the making of the Chicano Movement, Dr. King also inspired me to become part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. I had already participated in one the first major protest actions against the war that took place in Los Angeles in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson visited that city. But Dr. King’s 1967 speech entitled “A time to Break Silence” helped me connect the war in Vietnam with the struggle against poverty and racial inequality at home.
In that speech, Dr. King spoke out against the War in Vietnam because the war was “the enemy of the poor”. He made clear the war not only drained funds away from meeting the human needs of the poor at home, but also sent black men to ostensibly fight and die for democracy abroad when it did not exist in Georgia or East Harlem at the time.
I could see how Mexican American soldiers were doing the same thing. Ostensibly fighting and dying for democracy abroad when it did not exist in ELA, the Segundo Barrio, and other barrios throughout the nation.
Today, we are once again confronted by critical and challenging times. As a matter of fact, I think we are currently living in the worst of times. A black President has not made a difference in making the times better. Our nation continues to follow a foreign policy of war instead of peace. And poverty and racism unfortunately remain alive and well.
Dr. King would remind us that conditions will get better sooner than later if we build a mass movement for social justice and peace. He courageously spoke truth to power to both liberals and conservatives. His words and criticism of political leaders who remain part of the problem instead of the solution, and of those who remain passive during critical and challenging times still ring true today. He would be the first to hold President Obama and the U.S. Congress accountable if they continue to ignore the poor and continue to pursue a foreign policy of intervention and war throughout the world.
Many of us have already broken the silence against the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. But we need to remind those who have not, that Dr. King would also have wanted us to act and not be intimated by those who tell us it is unpatriotic to openly criticize our government and the President, regardless of race, during a time of war. Or that speaking out against war means that we don’t support our soldiers. To the contrary, those of us who favor the immediate withdrawal of our troops, demand it precisely because we do support them and we want them home safe and out of harms way.
We have lost enough of our young men and women of all races and ethnicities. We must also speak out against the killing of any more innocent people in those countries. Finally, that we demand that all the 736 U.S. military based around the world be closed.
We must have the same courage Dr. King had during the Vietnam War and demand that the over three trillion dollars spent on war and military assistance in the Middle East must be diverted to fight poverty at home. It would be a better way to resolve the economic crisis confronting our nation today. We must demand that as Obama and the Congress have supported the bail out of the corporate, banking, and financial institutions responsible for that crisis, that they must now bail out the poor and the working underclass.
On the home front, we must demand that Obama’s Administration immediately cease its war against Latino undocumented immigrants. If Dr. King would be alive today, no doubt he would be speaking out in defense of the poor undocumented Latino immigrants who are forced to work as a cheap labor force. They are the most vulnerable to economic and social injustice. They are treated like criminals although they are innocent victims of what I call a government terrorist war led by the ICE, the enforcement immigration agency of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE military style raids take place at the workplace and at the homes of undocumented worker’s families.
Obama has gone down in history as the President who has deported the most number of people, almost 2 million at this point. He has also maintained a militarized border between Mexico and the U.S. and most recently has approved the use of drones as he has done elsewhere in the world. We must demand that President Obama and the Congress produce a comprehensive immigration policy based on the human rights of undocumented workers and their families.
We must also demand that that the Obama Administration, specifically, it’s Department of Justice, immediately do all within it’s power to stop the war against Black and Brown youth! Police shootings, and also by others, have become common occurrences especially in the large cities throughout our nation.
When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, 12% of Americans lived in poverty. Today it is 15.1% and the Census Bureau expects it to rise to rise to 15.7%. In real numbers that adds up to over 46 million people living in poverty.
POVERTY BREAKDOWN BY RACE/ETHNICITY (DATA FROM U.S. CENSUS BUREAU)
12.1% Asian ?
25% Native American (28.4% on reservations)
More Women in poverty than Men:
19% of our nation’s children live in poverty = 14 million – the data make clear that children of color are over represented in ranks of poor.
34% of black children,
31% of Latino children
31% Native American
11% White Children
61% of black and Latino children live in families that struggle to make ends meet. More than 35.8 million Americans used food stamps in 2012. Half of them were children. Tragically, those children will suffer more when the food stamp budget was drastically cut recently by the U.S. Congress.
EDUCATIONAL INEQUALITY ALSO CONTINUES TO BE A REALITY UNDER THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION.
The 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education and the 1946 Mendez v. Westminster that ended dejure segregation and opened the doors into white schools for black and Latino children. But today they continue to be victimized by defacto segregation in the poor and working class inner city school districts throughout the nation. Latinos are now the most segregated student population in the nation and they also have the highest drop out rate, or more accurately, the “Push Out Rate”.
In higher education, affirmative action diversity programs that were products of Dr. King’s civil rights movement and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement have been either terminated or watered down as a result of conservative opposition. The consequence is that Black and Latino student enrollments have drastically declined in public colleges and universities across the nation. For example, Black students at my campus are now largely invisible, except on the football and basketball teams. And Latinos, who are now the majority people of color population in my state, have also declined and remain under-represented in institutions of higher education.
The following 2010 U.S. Census numbers tells us the consequence:
B.A. Degrees = Whites 18.5%, Black 11.6%, and Latino 8.9%
Graduate/Professional Degrees = Whites 10.8%, Blacks 6.1%, and Latino 4.1%
(In terms of women, 30 percent of white women had a college degree or higher, compared to 21.4 percent of black women and a mere 14.9 percent of Latinas.)
Those who have led the struggle against Affirmative Action and diversity have been victorious because they have effectively co-opted Dr. King’s ideas and vision for a colorblind society. They have falsely redefined Affirmative Action as a “racist in reverse” policy discriminatory to White students. It is ironic that Ward Connerly, a conservative African American and a product of affirmative action, who served as a regent of the University of California, has been a prominent leader in the struggle against affirmative action and diversity throughout the nation.
Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. It is the only one of his many speeches that is publicized during his holiday. The most quoted words from that speech were as follows:
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.
Those who are against affirmative action, use that quote to include white children. But they ignore the fact that in that speech, Dr. King was making specific references to black racial inequality. Dr. king was well aware that white supremacy had created an institutionalized system of white privilege that has existed since it was instituted when our Republic was founded. He argued that laws or policies that allowed preferences to black people were legitimate because they didn’t disenfranchise other powerless groups of people. They instead contributed toward an equal playing field between people of color and the white majority.
If he were alive he would argue that affirmative action and diversity remain critically important today because African Americans and Latinos remain underrepresented in institutions of higher education and other dominant social and political institutions. In contrast, they are over represented in the prisons.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 40% of all prisoners are African Americans and 26.6% are Latinos.
But if we add up the Latino undocumented immigrants in prison, that includes children, the Latino prison population percentage adds up to the same African American 40%. That is not the type of affirmative action that Dr. King had in mind.
Prior to his assassination in 1968, Dr. King called for the nation to dedicate itself to a nonviolent War on Poverty. He had decided to build a multiracial coalition of all poor people, inclusive of white, black, indigenous, Latino, and Asian. As part of the building process, he had started organizing a Poor People’s march on Washington. Dr. King believed the time had come to transform civil rights struggles into a mass movement for human rights because War and Poverty negatively impacts all the American poor regardless of race and ethnicity.
If we want to truly honor Dr. King’s legacy, we must build Poor People’s coalitions, inclusive of the immigrant poor, both documented and undocumented, throughout our nation. And hopefully, those coalitions can lead toward the organizing of another march on Washington to demand that the Obama Presidency and the Congress declare a war on poverty. Not a temporary one like the one declared in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, but a permanent one that would last until poverty is eliminated!
Dr. King did not hesitate to speak truth to power no matter the consequences. We must do the same today. We must use his legacy as the inspiration for us to be active citizens beyond the time for elections.
The time has come for us to become active citizens in our communities, in our workplace, and on campus. We must become community organizers and continue to carry the torch for hope and fundamental, not symbolic change.
Dr. King’s ideas remain vibrant to those of us committed to social justice, human rights, and peace. The words he wrote and spoke on the issues of his time remain meaningful for us today. We must put them into practice and keep his revolutionary spirit alive and struggle to build an authentic Multiracial Democracy committed to social justice and peace at home and abroad.
Dr. King inspired me to have my own dream for an Authentic Multiracial Democracy. I would like to share my dream with you today.
I have a dream that Americans of all colors, ethnicities, cultures, religions, sexual preferences, the able and disabled, men and women, will give birth to an authentic Multiracial Democracy.
A Democracy that will promote and nurture racial and ethnic diversity and equality beyond symbolic tokenism.
A Democracy that will promote social, economic, and environmental justice, religious tolerance, and peace at home and abroad.
A Democracy with a government that will include a representative of every diverse group at the table of political power on behalf of the people, not the military- corporate- prison complex.
A Democracy with a national political multiparty electoral system where candidates for elective office include the poor and working class, not just those who are rich or middle class. With an electoral system where every vote will in fact be counted and not influenced by corporate lobbyists.
A Democracy where human needs are prioritized and not the needs of the rich and the corporations. And makes possible a government bureaucracy that assures the safety of our citizens, especially the poor, when natural disasters take place. No more Katrina’s!
A Democracy that honors all workers, those who are citizens and those who are not, the documented and the undocumented.
A Democracy that defines health care, housing, childcare, and education as Human Rights.
A Democracy that prioritizes youth as the most important investment for the future of our nation and builds more schools instead of prisons.
A Democracy that wages war against poverty and not sovereign nations that do not represent a direct threat to our security.
A Democracy that does not support dictatorships throughout the world.
A Democracy that will be based on love and compassion and not hate and greed.
In conclusion, I pass on to you the main lesson that I have learned during my years as a fighter for freedom and peace. And that lesson is that struggle is life and life is struggle. But most importantly, that victory is in the struggle!
Copyright 2014 by Dr. Carlos Muñoz, Jr. and posted with permission.