Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for African Americans. Beside King are John Lewis, Reverend Jesse Douglas, James Forman and Ralph Abernathy. (Photo by Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images)

On this MLK Day, many of us are thinking about the problems our country still faces with regard to race, civil rights and equity. Here at FRCC, a major focus for us is ensuring that the open, affordable access we provide to education gives all students what they need to succeed.

We serve all people who want to transform their lives through education—students with disabilities, students who come from low-income families, first-generation students, veterans, parents, adult learners, English language learners and more.

Our students come from all 50 states (and DC), as well as 73 countries. We recognize that this diversity makes us stronger and we embrace that it makes us who we are as a community of learners. Of our more than 27,000 students:

  • About 1/3 identify as students of color.
  • More than 46% are the first in their family to go to college.
  • 76% take classes part time because they have busy work and family lives.

Our “Separate” Struggles Are One

Renowned civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez shared his lessons learned from Dr. King in a speech for MLK Day in 1990. King and Chavez had never met, but they did write to each other periodically.

In 1968, in a clear understanding of intersectionality (20 years before that term was coined), King sent Chavez a telegram that said “Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.” He expressed of the importance of building solidarity in the fight for social justice.

In Chavez’s remarks more than 20 years later, he reminds us how King was “a wise teacher, an inspiring leader, and a true visionary.”

Still Fighting

It’s clear these days that there’s still a lot of work we need to do in order to reach Dr. King’s dream of a world in which “all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

I think you’ll find Chavez’s words inspiring—and I hope they provide us all with a little extra motivation to continue Dr. King’s critical work. Here are excerpts from that 1990 speech…

“Lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” By Cesar Chavez

My friends, today we honor a giant among men: today we honor the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was a powerful figure of destiny, of courage, of sacrifice, and of vision. Few people in the long history of this nation can rival his accomplishment, his reason, or his selfless dedication to the cause of peace and social justice.

Learning His Lessons

Today we honor a wise teacher, an inspiring leader, and a true visionary, but to truly honor Dr. King we must do more than say words of praise.

We must learn his lessons and put his views into practice, so that we may truly be free at last.

Who Was Dr. King?

Many people will tell you of his wonderful qualities and his many accomplishments, but what makes him special to me, the truth many people don’t want you to remember, is that Dr. king was a great activist, fighting for radical social change with radical methods.

While other people talked about change, Dr. King used direct action to challenge the system. He welcomed it, and used it wisely.

In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote that “The purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Dr. King was also radical in his beliefs about violence. He learned how to successfully fight hatred and violence with the unstoppable power of nonviolence.

He once stopped an armed mob, saying: “We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we live by. We must meet hate with love.”

The Movement

Dr. King knew that he very probably wouldn’t survive the struggle that he led so well. But he said “If I am stopped, the movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just, and god is with us.”

My friends, as we enter a new decade, it should be clear to all of us that there is an unfinished agenda, that we have miles to go before we reach the promised land.

The men who rule this country today never learned the lessons of Dr. King, they never learned that non-violence is the only way to peace and justice.

Our nation continues to wage war upon its neighbors, and upon itself.

The powers that be rule over a racist society, filled with hatred and ignorance.

Our nation continues to be segregated along racial and economic lines.

Fighting Exploitation

The powers that be make themselves richer by exploiting the poor. Our nation continues to allow children to go hungry, and will not even house its own people. The time is now for people, of all races and backgrounds, to sound the trumpets of change. As Dr. King proclaimed “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

My friends, the time for action is upon us. The enemies of justice want you to think of Dr. King as only a civil rights leader, but he had a much broader agent. He was a tireless crusader for the rights of the poor, for an end to the war in Vietnam long before it was popular to take that stand, and for the rights of workers everywhere.

Workers’ Rights

Many people find it convenient to forget that Martin was murdered while supporting a desperate strike on that tragic day in Memphis, Tennessee. He died while fighting for the rights of sanitation workers.

Dr. King’s dedication to the rights of the workers who are so often exploited by the forces of greed has profoundly touched my life and guided my struggle.

During my first fast in 1968, Dr. King reminded me that our struggle was his struggle too. He sent me a telegram which said “Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.”

I was profoundly moved that someone facing such a tremendous struggle himself would take the time to worry about a struggle taking place on the other side of the continent.

Following in His Footsteps

Just as Dr. King was a disciple of Ghandi and Christ, we must now be Dr. King’s disciples.

Dr. King challenged us to work for a greater humanity. I only hope that we are worthy of his challenge.

The same inhumanity displayed at Selma, in Birmingham, in so many of Dr. King’s battlegrounds, is displayed every day in the vineyards of California.

The farm labor system in place today is a system of economic slavery.

The Plight of Farm Workers

My friends, even those farm workers who do not have to bury their young children are suffering from abuse, neglect, and poverty.

Our workers labor for many hours every day under the hot sun, often without safe drinking water or toilet facilities.

Our workers are constantly subjected to incredible pressures and intimidation to meet excessive quotas.

The women who work in the fields are routinely subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assaults by the grower’s thugs. When our workers complain, or try to organize, they are fired, assaulted, and even murdered.

Just as Bull Connor turned the dogs loose on non-violent marchers in Alabama, the growers turn armed foremen on innocent farm workers in California.

Effective Strategies

My friends, if we are going to end the suffering, we must use the same people power that vanquished injustice in Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham.

I have seen many boycotts succeed. Dr. King showed us the way with the bus boycott, and with our first boycott we were able to get DDT, Aldrin, and Dieldrin banned in our first contracts with grape growers. Now, even more urgently, we are trying to get deadly pesticides banned.

The growers and their allies have tried to stop us for years with intimidation, with character assassination, with public relations campaigns, with outright lies, and with murder.

But those same tactics did not stop Dr. King, and they will not stop us.

Moving Forward

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.

You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. And you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.

In our life and death struggle for justice we have turned to the court of last resort: the American people. And the people are ruling in our favor.

Carrying On King’s Work

My friends, Dr. King realized that the only real wealth comes from helping others.

I challenge each and every one of you to be a true disciple of Dr. King, to be truly wealthy.

I challenge you to carry on his work by volunteering to work for a just cause you believe in.

A Call to Action

I have faith that in this audience there are men and women with the same courage and the same idealism, that put young Martin Luther King, Jr. on the path to social change.

I challenge you to join the struggle of the United Farm Workers. And if you don’t join our cause, then seek out the many organizations seeking peaceful social change.

Seek out the many outstanding leaders who will speak to you this week, and make a difference.

If we fail to learn that each and every person can make a difference, then we will have betrayed Dr. King’s life’s work. The reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had more than just a dream, he had the love and the faith to act.

God bless you.

Our Commitment

FRCC’s faculty, instructors and staff have true passion and a strong belief in what we do. Our institution is committed to inclusive excellence, educational equity and advancing opportunity for all. Now let’s all go out and do the real work.

Welcoming. Respectful. Inclusive. Together, we are FRCC.

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