04/05/2012 07:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Was the Civil Rights Movement in Vain?

By Carli Eli

Last week, I was in Alabama for a work assignment and to my surprise it was such an eye-opening and heart-wrenching experience. Usually when one thinks of Alabama, the movie Forrest Gump or Lynyrd Skynyrd's song " Sweet Home Alabama" comes to mind. Unfortunately, for many Alabamians their lives are a far cry from the sweet ending of that movie or catchy song. 

Originally, my mission was to inquire about the community's attitude and views towards the recent laws on educational reform in Montgomery, Alabama. My first town was Birmingham and if you know a little bit of history, you'll know this is ground zero for the civil rights movement that started nearly 50 years ago. In order to fully understand the community and prepare my questions, I had to dig deeper into the rich history, culture and mindset of this prolific town.

Compared to the rest of the country, Alabama ranks 47thin education and 46th in income growth. This explains the harsh social, economic and political reality many of its residents face. When I asked people in the community what was happening to address this issue, many responded with, "We've been ignored. We're still waiting for opportunity." I met and interviewed at least 100 people during my visit, and I am saddened to say that the overall consensus was exactly the same. 

How is this possible? Why have Alabamians received the short end of the stick when Alabama impacted an entire nation through the civil rights movement? Every person I sat down with had an amazing, powerful story to tell, which often left me in tears. Some of them were descendants or participants of the movement and their stories represented character, compassion, inner strength, forgiveness and the human spirit; a community imprisoned to no fault of their own in a broken system that has robbed them for multiple decades.

Alabamians--both white and black--didn't choose to be in this situation. The system has purposely destined them to be living in harsh conditions. Although the folks I met with are eager to move forward and build bridges, they still find themselves disempowered by the current racial divisions that exist in their communities.

I think the most tragic town of all was Selma, Alabama. To hear that a white and black teacher can't go out to lunch together because society will ostracize them was unbelievable. To discover that whites and blacks can't engage in business transactions for fear of their store shutting down or receiving negative repercussions is unfathomable. To learn that football teams in rival high schools refuse to play against each other on the field because of racism is painful. I asked one woman, "Where does that leave me? How will people perceive me if I don't fit into either ethnic group?" Her response was, "You're questionable so they might leave you alone, but Hispanics are also facing racism from both ethnic groups in Alabama."

She was right. Not too long ago a Latino community had their utilities shut off because of their race. It's 2012 and this is happening in the United States of America! Unfortunately, Alabama's anti-immigration law HB56 has triggered more racial tension, forcing Latinos to leave the state. Anyone living outside of Alabama is blessed with the liberty and freedom Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us with his movement. The next time you hear his name, take a moment to really understand, appreciate, visualize and thank him for his contribution to mankind in this country. His courage and his conviction to fight for what he believed in speaks volumes of his character and leadership against a sentiment filled with hatred and opposition. Meditate on the true meaning and significance of his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to fully comprehend how he saw the world back then and how his only escape in the midst of it was a dream.

As a Latina strategist and activist, I'm not here to advocate on behalf of one ethnic group, but human beings as a whole. It's our individual duty and responsibility to do the same for our own communities. Don't turn a blind-eye on things that are morally wrong. Take a stand for what is right and lend a helping hand to your fellow neighbor no matter what ethnicity he or she is. It's crucial for all of us to continue spreading the message of peace and tolerance. Otherwise, the movement was created in vain.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  --MLK, Jr. 

Carli Eli is a seasoned media and communications professional with extensive experience working on Latino social, educational and political issues. She's worked with ABC networks (radio and TV), MTV Networks, V-me Media and Telemundo in the areas of production, reporting, marketing, events and promotions, business development and community outreach. She lives in Washington, DC.