A Visit to the National Archives
January 15th is the actual birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., officially celebrated the third Monday of January in many communities and congregations in a variety of ways: some focusing on his legacy of work in securing civil rights for African Americans; others on his nonviolent approach to acts of disobedience; others on his opposition to unjust war, or his later life interest in economic justice issues. King was preparing for a Poor People’s March on Washington DC when he was gunned down in Memphis, the site of a sanitation worker’s march for better pay and other labor issues.
There was some critique during his living years of the lack of visible (or acknowledged) leadership of women in these initiatives. The particular concerns of women around human rights have been viewed as being overlooked then, and not particularly the focus of observances honoring his legacy in the years that have followed.
Not so in 2014.
A recent family visit to the National Archives in Washington DC included our first time seeing the new more expansive and nuanced permanent exhibit displaying the “Records of Rights”, highlighting the parallel and intersecting civil rights struggles of African Americans, women, and immigrants.
In a fresh and powerful way, materials in this major gallery chronicle women’s efforts to gain the full rights of citizens and achieve economic self-determination. Original petitions for—and against—granting the right for women to vote complement lesser-known facets of our nation’s history. “Repatriation oaths” reveal that, during the early 20th century, women derived their citizenship from their husbands, and marrying a man who wasn’t a citizen meant the loss of their rights as Americans. Only when they divorced or became widows were these women allowed to “repatriate” and become Americans again. Even as late as the 1970s, women had difficulties obtaining mortgages and credit on their own. This section of the exhibition also explores the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment and the success of Title IX, which ensured equal opportunities in education for women.
For the past 20 years, Atlanta—where he was born, where he preached from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and where the MLK Historical site and District are located—has been my home. The King holiday weekend features concerts, worship services, marches, a day of service and other regular events memorializing his life, mourning his violent and untimely death; and encouraging ways to keep his legacy alive. This year playwright Eve Ensler ( “The Vagina Monologues”) is being honored at the Salute to Greatness dinner here for her campaign to stop violence against women.
King Center CEO Bernice King (his daughter) held a press conference announcing Ensler’s selection as a “ no-brainer,” saying that lifting her up as an embodiment of her father’s philosophy and the center’s vision “ is very consistent with the work we are doing.” Naming her and her worldwide One Billion Rising movement turns the focus of the King Center to the issue of rape and other violence against women and girls and confirms, as Bernice King reminds us, that women’s rights and civil rights are indeed one and the same.