Our country faces challenges today beyond what many of us thought could be possible at a time of exuberant stock markets and booming real estate, with corrosive hyper-partisan politics and resurgent COVID leading the way.
Dr. Martin Luther King's life and inspiration provide needed perspective and should help ground us as we search for a way forward in the face of seemingly relentless efforts to undermine our democracy and institutions.
Above all, Dr. King struggled to win respect and a voice for people long denied a role in society and its governance. His political marches and demonstrations were non-violent until violence came to them. That violence was deeply rooted in racism and privilege as those in power used every means possible to achieve their purposes. Unfortunately, we have new echoes of this today.
Dr. King's was a heavy burden, to him and to the millions of fellow American citizens who happened to be African-American, long denied access to the ballot box and a voice in politics and policy. Just travel up the road to Selma, Montgomery, or Birmingham, or visit the web to learn about the protests at the Woolworth's lunch counters on Palafox, in Tallahassee and other cities to understand and appreciate the difficult political, economic and social circumstances that weighed on so many fellow Americans.
Today it is hard to imagine African-American voting reality in the South in 1960. Only 14 percent of eligible Black citizens were registered to vote in Alabama, 5 percent in Mississippi; some counties had no Black citizens registered at all, some for decades. Remarkably, Congress united to pass the 24th Amendment to the Constitution in 1962 (ratified in 1964) banning the imposition of poll taxes, a huge obstacle to voting by impoverished African-American citizens.
Dr. King's committed crusade – and the white supremist violence of Selma and elsewhere – led to a true political breakthrough for the country, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, banning racial discrimination in voting practices. Certainly we should be thankful that the country progressed from those dismal days. Dr. King’s efforts brought millions of new voters into the political mainstream as a significant new impulse in American politics, one contributing much to our progress towards constitutional ideals.
That we came finally to have great trust in our dedicated election workers and their loyalty to their constitutional duties is testimony in part to the impact of Dr. King’s vision and life’s work. But something happened on the way to 2016.
Recognizing progress achieved but ignoring rekindled political forces, the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down some enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights law. In so doing, justices again created space for those who feel politically threatened by African- American and other minority voters whose economic and social circumstances still limit their ability to make it to the polls on Election Day, a work day.
The court failed to anticipate the concerted effort of 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump to launch an aggressive attack on our democratic process and institutions and to announce fraud before any votes were cast, much less counted. This campaign continues. unabated. The court also failed to recognize that the leadership of the candidate’s political party would embark on a renewed national program of voter repression. The court’s legacy of respect is now badly tarnished.
Thankfully or perhaps unfortunately, Dr. King’s work in support of voters' rights is again highly relevant, with so many doing so much in so many states, to restrict access to the ballot box. Their assertions of doing so in pursuit of greater election integrity and to combat non-existent voter fraud stand as a hollow pretext for their true objective, political advantage at almost any cost.
Let’s be thankful for Dr. King’s efforts those decades ago. Let’s hope now that new visionary leaders of his caliber will emerge to put us back on the right track, the one he so bravely and wisely pioneered.
Mike Mozur is a retired U.S. State Department Senior Foreign Service officer and environmental executive who now lives in the Pensacola area.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: As we honor Dr. King, it's vital we challenge our country to do better | Guestview