Austin celebrates King legacy

January 19, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas--Martin Luther King Day festivities brought out a diverse crowd of more than 5,000 Austinites to celebrate King's legacy on January 17.

The crowd rallied at the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on the University of Texas campus before starting off on the long march across I-35 to the historically Black Huston-Tillotson University.

Numbers of activist groups were represented in the crowd, trying to connect King's activism to their current struggles against deep budget cuts in state services, public universities and local school districts. Texas State Employees Union outreach coordinator Mimi Garcia explained:

We represent thousands of state workers in Texas and at universities who meet people's basic needs. We are out because civil rights are important to the union--the work that we do is not only for employees but also to maintain services to people in need. MLK reminds us of the fight for equality and justice for all people.

State services are on chopping block, $27 billion [is being] cut. State workers [are] being laid off at universities and in services, and there's a "cuts-only" attitude that says you don't matter. We need to find a way to make this a priority because at the university, if we are cutting ethnic studies and other areas, we're going to be ill-prepared for the future.

Union member Mariano Conti said, "Martin Luther King talked about economic inequality and racial justice. I saw a graph of state contributions to education. Now they're budget cutting, and schools are getting less and less. It's getting to where we will have no more public institutions."

Nine primary schools in Austin have been targeted by the school board for elimination, and parents, students and community members have joined forces to defend them.

Zilker Elementary parent Miriam Martuza described how communities were mobilizing after an Austin Independent School District task force report recommended the closings. "It's really short-sighted. The schools targeted are really diverse racially and economically," she said. "Their priority is 'efficiency', which really means 'big box' elementary schools. They think we're like a starfish, and you can cut off an arm."

Parents and students from Pease Elementary, one of the targeted schools, had a contingent in the march. One family told me that three generations of their family had gone to Pease. While we were talking, a man and his first-grade daughter approached to tell us she was enrolled at Pease. Her father, Bryan Bernard Taylor, praised the school as unique and special, diverse and rated as exemplary. "Like Martin Luther King," he said, "we have to fight to preserve diversity.

Terry Adams, a member of the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty commented:

MLK was a revolutionary, and all revolutionary ideas are connected. It's about standing up to power, and he never backed down, equivocated or apologized. When someone has that kind of moral courage, you have to show up. The death penalty was an issue that he took up. Why are we spending money on capital punishment, on war, when there are people in need?

Antiwar groups were also present. Heidi Turpin, a member of Code Pink-Austin wanted to remind marchers that King had spoken out for peace and social justice. "We can't deliver justice in a war economy that's so damaging," she said. "So much money spent on war could educate all of the young people here and many more. Instead, the military has become a jobs program that pushes young people to do things against their conscience."

Turpin put the day in the context of the recent shootings in Tucson, Ariz., explaining that her fear was that in the aftermath, all activism was being demonized as violent. "We are peaceful, but believe in challenging the system. We had some plans for actions, but people have become more cautious. That really worries me, that it will damage the right to protest."

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