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The Past and Present Collide as Panel Explores Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Inauguration
Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied in words and actions the triumph of hope over adversity. On the day following Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 40 years after peak of the Civil Rights Movement, America inaugurated its first African American president. To celebrate the two events, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) at Pepperdine University held a panel discussion on Wednesday, Jan. 21, at the School of Law.
Moderated by associate professor of law Christine Chambers Goodman, the BLSA hosted three esteemed panelists: Rabbi Judith HaLevy, public defender Raul Ayala, and Reverend Brenda Lamothe. They discussed their very personal and hopeful insights about the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement in light of the inauguration of Barack Obama.
As a young Mexican growing up during the height of the civil rights movement in East Los Angeles, Raul Ayala remembers the social change on a personal level. Refusing to be constrained by the cultural norms of his youth, he earned a law degree from the University of California at Hastings in 1979, and is now a deputy federal public defender in the Los Angeles.
He spoke to the attendees about forging his own identity while growing up as an outsider from the dominant culture of the 1960s. Ayala calls the election and inauguration of President Obama an important step in achieving Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream. Appealing to the students at the School of Law, Ayala credited the law as being a tool for change. "The dreams continue to progress," he said.
The panel changed topic as Rabbi Judith HaLevy took to the podium to present a look at the close ties between the Jewish and African American communities. The rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue compared the plight of both communities, with their shared history of slavery, injustice, and triumph.
She spoke of observing the crowds on Inauguration day at the National Mall in Washington D.C., and comparing in her mind the amazing step of inaugurating the first African American president with Moses parting the Red Sea to lead his people out of slavery in the Old Testament.
HaLevy noted that with change, comes resistance. She shared with the attendees and her fellow panelists the sad news that her synagogue was vandalized with swastika symbols on the weekend before the inauguration. "I was reminded that we still have to work for the privilege of the rule of law in America and the Constitution," she said.
The third panelist was Reverend Brenda Lamothe, the associate minister at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, the oldest African American church in the city. She presented a deeply personal portrait for the audience of life growing up in Watts, Los Angeles with the 1965 race riots on her doorstep. Every household on the block displayed pictures of the three great men of the time - Martin Luther King, Jr., and John and Robert Kennedy. She remembered the gradual chipping away of hope that came with the assassination of each leader.
Disillusioned with the system, Lamothe realized there was no quick solution to the problems faced by her family and neighbors. She decided to go to law school, and, in her words, "Be the best person I can be, and touch just one person."
The BLSA panel showed that issues of race, inclusion, equality, and freedom are not specific to just one community, but relevant to the entire nation. In a historic week, the panelists discussed their own histories, and the future of America in the dawning of new era of leadership.