Free at Last

When Martin Luther King III was born, his mother, Coretta Scott King, was reportedly reluctant to name him for his father. She feared the name would place a huge burden upon her son. But Rev. King prevailed.

And so has their son.

Like his father before him, King is his own man.

Defying political pressure, the day after the national commemoration of his father’s birthday, Martin Luther King III stood at the helm of another battle for rights. He linked arms with Jewish, African American, and Hispanic leaders to lead a 10,000-person march in Tallahassee, Florida, in support of school choice.

The march was organized to call upon the Florida Education Association (FEA) and NAACP to drop their lawsuit against 78,000 low-income students benefiting from the state’s scholarship tax credit program.

Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program was first set up in 2001 when Jeb Bush was governor. It allows companies to receive tax credits from the state if they donate money to organizations that hand out the private-school vouchers. The program is limited now to families who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, but the eligibility criteria will be expanded in the fall.

The teachers’ union filed its lawsuit in 2014 after state legislators expanded the eligibility. A circuit judge ruled against the suit last year. The court found that the groups filing the lawsuit did not have a legal right or “standing” to challenge the program. But the union appealed.

The lawsuit sparked a bitter fight and supporters of the voucher program have aired media ads calling on the union to end its legal battle.

Several times King and others had the crowd chanting “Drop the Suit” in unison and ended the rally singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Union leaders said afterward they have no plans to end their legal battle.

King insists that the welfare of the children should come before the partisan issues of unions and the NAACP. He believes that his father wouldn’t get caught up in partisan politics at the expense of the children.

He acknowledges that the NAACP’s position — that not all students have access to private schools — has some merit. But he felt that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Other black community leaders joined with King in the rally against the lawsuit, including Bishop Victor Curry, a past president of the Miami-Dade NAACP; Rev. H.K. Matthews, a Florida civil rights activist; and Rev. Dr. R.B. Holmes.

The rally was, in many ways, a throwback to the glory days of the civil rights movement. Black and Hispanic leaders joined with Jewish community leaders, including Roshei Yeshivah and leaders of Agudath Israel, and marched for freedom — the freedom to learn.

Agudath Israel of Florida director Rabbi Moshe Matz said, “The lawsuit is a shameful attempt to scare parents away from exercising their right to choose the school that best meets their child’s needs.”

At the rally, King made his position clear: “What choice does is essentially create options, particularly for poor and working families that they would not necessarily normally have.’’

King focused on the key issue. It’s not about left and right, or black and white, or Christian or Jewish. He turned his back on issues of race or catering to political correctness.

“This is about freedom — the freedom to choose for your family and your child. There’s nothing more important than ensuring that our children have the best education.”

Just a week earlier, teachers angry over the state’s education system held their own protest against everything from high-stakes testing to a teacher bonuses program. This time, however, it was the union that represents the teachers that was the target of protest.

In a fiery speech reminiscent of his father’s oratory, King said, “This is about justice, this is about righteousness, this is about truth. This is about freedom: The freedom to choose what’s best for your family.”

King questioned the FEA’s refusal to drop its challenge to the state’s tax credit scholarship program that handed out vouchers to more than 78,000 students.

Hopefully, the cries for freedom in Florida — and throughout the United States — will prevail. And education for all children, rich and poor, black and white, Jewish and gentile… will be free at last.