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Activists reflect on post-Sept. 11 civil rights

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Several hundred civil rights activists gathered in Washington on Saturday, celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reflecting on how September 11 changed their world and their cause.

Organizers of the event said they hoped to promote public dialogue about ensuring civil liberties following the terrorist attacks. The forum, falling on the eve of the King holiday, also intended to look at the slain civil rights leader's life and philosophy for inspiration in dealing with new challenges.

Several speakers highlighted the rise of the profiling of Arabs and Muslims as the biggest issue now facing civil rights advocates.

Terrorists linked to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden hijacked four U.S. airliners, slamming two into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon -- attacks bin Laden later said "benefited Islam greatly." Since then, there have been hundreds of reports of Arabs and Muslims being singled out and persecuted by airport security, law enforcement and other citizens because of their ethnicity and religion.

"Since September 11, our nation has engaged in a policy of institutionalized racial and ethnic profiling," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan. "If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today ... he would tell us we must not allow the horrific acts of terror our nation has endured to slowly and subversively destroy the foundation of our democracy."

Dr. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute and one of the most outspoken figures in the racial profiling debate, also said that King must be remembered in the current political and social climate.

"He was a revolutionary fighter for justice, and he sought a radical transformation of America and the world," Zogby said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, said the basic issues facing civil rights activists -- equality, quality of life and freedom from discrimination -- have not changed since King's heyday in the 1960s.

"The issue of civil rights today is the issue it was 40 years ago," Sharpton said. "(It is) the right to have a civilized life in the United States, no matter who you are."




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