Nearly 47 years since his father was assassinated, Martin Luther King III said Monday the country still has a long way to go in eradicating racial, economic and gender inequality.
“We can and must do better,’’ King told hundreds attending the National Trial Lawyers Summit at the Loews Miami Beach, a four-day symposium held for lawyers across the country. “It’s appropriate to celebrate sometimes,” he said, referring to the 29th national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “In 2015, I don’t know if we can celebrate.”
During his speech, King spoke about his parents’ work in fighting poverty, racism and violence. King’s mother, Coretta Scott King, often marched with her husband.
“We are better as a nation than the behavior we exhibit,” he said.
King said his mother and father devoted their lives to changing society and challenging laws that were unjust, always doing so under the guiding principle of non-violence. The 1965 march he spearheaded from Selma to Montgomery led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the major pieces of legislation of the Civil Rights era.
King noted his father went to jail nearly 40 times in his life, but he continued to take steps to make a difference. In fact, King wrote one of his most famous works “Letter from Birmingham Jail,’’ which was first published in The Atlantic and was a response to eight white religious leaders of the South, who called his activities “unwise and untimely.’’
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,’’ he wrote in the letter, dated April 16, 1963. “… We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.’’
King said his father and his team did not have access to social media, but “they were able to transform the world.” With the widespread reach of social media today, King said people have even more power to create change.
Quoting Horace Mann, a reformer and politican who advocated free, universal public education, King said, “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Prior to his keynote speech, King sat on a panel with lawyers and legal activists discussing the state of justice in America.
Among the topics: Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed black men killed by police, and whose deaths have sparked nationwide protests.
The lawyers and activists called for police to wear body cameras, to reform the grand jury system, and appoint independent prosecutors from outside the area to prosecute high-profile cases.
King argued that the criminal justice system does not work.
“It should be crystal clear,” he said, “that the system of justice that we call the criminal justice system… is broken.”
He said that African Americans, who make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, make up more than half of the jail population nationally. He called for courses to be taught in schools that focused on human relations, diversity and sensitivity. This would help reduce racial profiling, he said.
But Mark O’Mara, a criminal defense lawyer who defended George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, said the system is not broken.
“I think we do a good job, not a great job, but a good job of attempting to protect the rights that we’re supposed to protect,” he said. “I think it is in tatters and I maintain that there are ways to fix it and that we are on a decent path.”
Other panelists included Fernando Chavez, son of the farmworker labor leader Cesar Chavez; Gloria Allred, an attorney who has fought for women’s rights and gay and lesbian marriage equality; Benjamin Crump, an attorney who represented the family of Trayvon Martin; Mark Geragos, a criminal defense lawyer whose clients included Michael Jackson; and Jose Baez, lead attorney for Casey Anthony, the Orange County woman who was acquitted in the death of her 2-year-old daugher Caylee.
Panelists also raised issues of gun laws, immigration reform and gender and marriage equality. Each panelist advocated for reform in different areas, and agreed that the country still has a lot of work to do.
“It takes all of us doing a little something,” King said, “to make a difference.”