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  • George C. Palaidis

MLK, Civil Rights, and the Bike Movement

Every Martin Luther King Jr. Day I stop for a few minutes and re-read his Letter from Birmingham Jail. I like to reflect on MLK's passion, his ideas and beliefs, and his conviction for the protection and expansion of civil rights for all. Once I came across the picture below of MLK riding his bike in a suit, with his briefcase attached and seemingly going to work, and I began to think of how the bicycle movement relates to the cause for civil rights.

What is the 'bicycle movement'? In no way am I the leading authority to define it, but I personally believe that it seeks to create an environment where bicyclists and pedestrians can move freely and safely throughout their community, whether it be for work or pleasure or health. This movement and environment applies to all people, regardless of their race, age, physicial abilities, economic status, or where they live. And as one of the most basic rights we have as a people, the freedom of movement should also mean that people have the right to freely, without fear of molestation or harm, in the manner they choose to travel. Seeking to protect and preserve freedom of movement and travel as a basic right, the bicycle movement (for lack of a better term) goes hand-in-hand with the Civil Rights movement.


When people think of bicyclists, many times they think of the Saturday morning group rides of people in spandex on $2,000 bicycles with $500 GPS computers. That's been the image of cyclists since the early days of bicycles. But that's not just who is out riding bicycles or walking the streets.


Every day on my work commute, I try to avoid the highways and take the local roads. All along those roads I see people bicycling, most being minorities and almost all not riding expensive road and triathlon bikes. I see people, young and old, and disabled and able-bodied, walking to and from the bus stops; sometimes running across the street to catch the bus as it approaches; others running over 40 yards in the crosswalk to beat the green light. The movement is for them too. The right to be protected while walking and biking to work, or for any other purposes, is a civil right. That roads and streets and cities are being designed with them as an afterthought, if at all, is effectively depriving people of their civil rights. The dangers of being on the road are as real to them as they are to the weekend warriors riding on Saturday and Sunday mornings.


And we've seen before how there can be abuses to those minorities riding bicycles. It wasn't too long ago when bicycle registration ordinances were abused and targeted minorities. The same in Tampa and in Chicago. And it was my own personal experience when I worked at the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office.


This isn't just an issue that effects minorities. It also effects people based on age and class and disabilities and economic status. Not everyone can afford to own or lease a car, let alone keep up with loan payments and maintenance costs. And not everyone wants a car. But people still need to get around, to get to work or school or to the stores. Walking and bicycling is the only way for so many people. Especially when public transportation is so deficient. Why should it be easier for someone in a BMW to get around than someone who can't afford to even own a car? The answer is that it shouldn't. But when we create cities and roads that cater to car culture and put all others at a disadvantage, their right of the freedom of travel is trampled upon.


In writing this, I came upon another piece by Simran Noor, formerly of the Center for Social Inclusion. She wrote about speaking at the 2015 National Bike Summit and how the Bike Movement could refocus and help move towards racial equity. She provides ideas of finding out why communities of color are less likely to bike, engaging with low-income communities and minority communities and look to pairing bike lane investments with affordable housing strategies and other transit options. The piece, based on her remarks at the event, laid out a promising blueprint for how the bicycle movement could work more towards racial equity.


The bicycle movement advocates for safer roads and more improved options of travel for people of all races, ages, abilities, and socio-economic status, in whatever way they see fit. People have a right to get to where they want safely, and should be able to do so whether or not they have a car. Whether it be the weekend warriors bicycling or running for their health or fun, or people riding and walking to get to work or to visit family, or just to do their part in saving the environment. That's why I believe the movement is just one way to carry on the ideals of MLK and to continue to fight for the civil rights of all, and why I believe MLK would have been supportive of the bicycle movement and the fight for the freedom of movement for all.



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© 2017 by George C. Palaidis, Esq.