Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Britain is a different country to the one my father came to 50 years ago, but the fight for equality isn't over yet

I've always been inspired by Dr King and his desire to change the world for the better

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The Independent Online

Attacked, thrown in jail, threatened – assassinated at the age of just 39 – Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was a man whose courage taught the world the meaning of the “fierce urgency of now”. His belief was that change is always possible, but never inevitable.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day, which marks the anniversary of his birth and provides us with a chance for us to celebrate his legacy. We still have a lot more to do to realise it fully, but what it has already achieved is enormous. His legacy has brought about change, not just in America, but all over the world.

My dad came to Britain in the 1960s. Greeted in London by those infamous hostel signs – “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” – he and other people of colour were subjected to rampant prejudice every single day. Prejudice obviously still persists, but thankfully we don't live in the same country now.

That's because of the achievements of the millions who fought for change, having been inspired by Dr King's words. His eventual triumphs, most of which he did not live to see, will continue to inspire generations to come. That is why, for me, he is a hero. Who can imagine what the world would be like today if he hadn’t triumphed?

The reason I left my career in the law was not only to represent and put something back in to my local area, but also the opportunity to bring about positive change in a world which is too insecure for too many people. The belief that where there is a will progress is possible is what Dr King teaches us. After all, just think of the obstacles his generation faced – determined and violent repression from authority – but they were determined to and did prevail.

Of course, it was quite different from the US, but growing up in Lambeth in the 80s I was in our community when we suffered some of the worst abuses of power by authority. But I was also there in the late 90s when the tide began to turn in London.

Inspired by what Dr King taught us, progress was achieved on a broad range of issues. One that will always stick with me is the first official acknowledgement of institutional racism within the Police, which was made in the 1999 Macpherson report that Labour commissioned, into the death of Stephen Lawrence.

Of course, there is still a long way to go on policing. Relations with the police are far from perfect, but we are in a better place now, especially in Lambeth. And I'm confident that we'll be able to make progress on issues like stop and search, and the interaction between mental health services and the criminal justice system.

As we get closer and closer to the election, Labour will be seeking the votes of all people in our country – of every colour, creed and background. We will build a country and an economy which works for everyone, not just a few at the top. We believe we have an excellent offer for the future, and we will ask for your support on that basis. But we also have another ask: that you use your voice and vote - something Dr King fought for.

I hope you vote Labour but, most importantly, I hope you vote rather than not vote at all. Changes brought in by this government mean that one million people have fallen off the electoral register, but you can get back on the register by visiting gov.uk/register-to-vote. Ultimately Dr King showed us that power is rarely given, you have to take it. Voting is the ultimate way of doing that.

Chuka Umunna is the MP for Streatham and Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary

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