This year, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King amid a nationwide discussion about the work that remains to be done.
Five decades after Selma and passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, many current challenges mirror those Dr. King confronted – economic inequality, disparities throughout the criminal justice system and challenges to our voting rights.
In my youth, Dr. King taught us that change never comes from the actions of a single person. Today, President Obama, together with those of us who are the President’s allies in the Congress, is acutely aware that we cannot achieve the changes we seek without massive and determined public support.
Today, in 2015, we must continue to raise our voices and exercise our voting power to transform an American vision of human rights into civil rights protected by law.
Our calling — Dr. King’s Dream in our time — is clear. If America is to remain a guardian of human rights, our civic culture must become more humane and more engaged.
Consider three of the priorities that President Obama addressed in his State of the Union speech last week: ensuring broadly enjoyed economic opportunity, criminal justice reform and revitalizing our voting rights.
Economic opportunity was a central priority for Dr. King. Yet, half-a-century later, we are still struggling to overcome growing inequality and the lack of upward mobility — what President Obama has termed “the defining challenge of our time.”
The belief that if we work hard, we will have the chance to get ahead has not come true for millions of Americans. Rather, in today’s economy, the rich are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the poor are getting poorer.
Sadly, we are seeing far too many hardworking Americans juggling two and three jobs in their struggles to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the top 10 percent of earners in our society now receive more than 50 percent of all income, a share that has been growing steadily since the 1980s.
President Obama challenged us to moderate these inequities in the State of the Union. He spoke of “middle class economics” that would restore the linkage between hard work and economic opportunity.
He called upon the Congress to reduce the cost of higher education and make it more relevant to economic opportunity, to provide more support for families who are balancing parenting and work, and to reform our taxation system to make it more equitable.
His specific proposals were far from being radical. Rather, they are a call for changes that speak to the center of people’s daily lives — and he can continue to count upon my support.
Criminal Justice Reform
An equally important focal point in advancing Dr. King’s legacy is the need to restore trust and cooperation between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. At the national level, the new Presidential Task Force is a promising beginning.
We must take a hard look at some of the racial disparities in police encounters — and the practices that led to the killings of unarmed African Americans in Staten Island, Ferguson and elsewhere.
We can make this a transformative moment worthy of Dr. King’s memory, but only if we are able to translate the lessons we’ve learned into broad improvements in policing across the country.
This is the moment for change, and we must seize that opportunity.
Since the 2010 elections, more than 22 states have passed laws restricting voting access. It’s now been well over a year since a slim 5-4 Supreme Court majority acted in Shelby v. Holder to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
As the President has observed, “surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred.” Yet, the Republican congressional leadership has failed to take action upon our proposals to restore this fundamental civil rights law to full force and effect.
We best honor Dr. King by defending and advancing his legacy. The protection of our right to vote is a moral and practical imperative for us all.
A Civil Rights Movement for All Americans
As we continue our struggle to achieve Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community,” we must not forget that he understood the fight would be long and arduous. He reminded those around him that, “we must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”
In our own time, the compelling need for hope and change calls for action. These goals are symbolized on our National Mall where the Memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. stands, carved out of a stone that is two stories tall.
Some have remarked that the statue appears to be unfinished, the carving incomplete. Yet, the design of the statue is a conscious one, representing the battle for Dr. King’s values that remains ongoing today.
As a nation, let this be our Resolution for the New Year: We shall never — ever — forget Dr. King, nor cease in our struggle for universal civil rights.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.