Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) was a Baptist minister and one of the most influential pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement. As an advocate for non-violent activism, he organized and led marches, sit-ins, and boycotts, uniting people across race, class, religion, and gender boundaries. But did you know Dr. King’s non-violent fights for equality included people with disabilities?
Many people don’t associate disability rights with Dr. King’s campaigns, but his purposeful work helped influence the Disability Rights Movement. He advocated for all people and emphasized that separation is not equal.
“It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people,” said Dr. King. State and Federal governments excluded people with disabilities from conversations about equality. Dr. King set the stage for them to be included in discussions, policies, and laws.
So, what direct contributions did Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement play to the Disability Rights Movement?
- The advancement of civil rights led to the authorization of federal laws and programs that improved the lives of people with disabilities: the creation of Medicaid/ Medicare, updated social security regulations to include those under age 50, panels on Mental Retardation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and building codes demanding equal access for all persons. Well into the 1970s saw the development of countrywide panels to support disability-focused changes like curb cutouts, independent living, and handicap parking.
- King’s organizing also focused on economic justice. He organized people across the country across racial lines to campaign for economic equality through the Poor People’s Campaign. Financial barriers prevented people from accessing resources, such as medicine and doctors. In a particular quote, Dr. King stated, “Of all forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.”
- His tactical organization during the Civil Rights movement provided a blueprint for the Disability Rights Movement. Disability activists across the country took note of Dr. King’s campaign. “At every moment, we felt ourselves the descendants of the civil rights movement of the ’60s,” said Kitty Cone, a lifelong disability rights activist. “We learned about sit-ins from the civil rights movement; we sang freedom songs to keep up morale and consciously show the connection between the two movements.”
Through his leadership, Dr. King paved the way for people with disabilities nationwide. Though significant achievements were made, there are still more opportunities to provide equitable opportunities.