Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. (Courtesy Photo)
By Ben Jealous
Martin Luther King Jr. Day feels complicated this year.
We have new reasons to celebrate. High on that list is the election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Rev. King preached, to the U.S. Senate.
Georgians had the rare opportunity to vote for two senators at the same time. They elected Warnock, a progressive prophetic Black preacher, and Jon Ossoff, a young Jewish journalist and filmmaker. Seeing them campaign and celebrate together highlighted the vital partnership between Black and Jewish leaders in our struggle toward equality. It reminded me of that historic photo of King holding up pictures of the martyred civil rights colleagues James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
The people who made the Warnock and Ossoff victories possible—the dedicated organizers led by Stacey Abrams and her many colleagues and collaborators—made me think of earlier generations of voting rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer.
This was the kind of moment for which King dreamed and worked.
Yet many of us were robbed of the chance to fully appreciate and celebrate these historic milestones. Because the day after the election, while votes in Georgia were still being counted, a mob of angry supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol.
I will not soon be able to forget the feeling in my gut at seeing a gallows and noose being erected outside the Capitol. Or the sight of the Confederate flag being paraded through the rotunda while rioters searched for members of Congress and the vice president.
While the mob failed to get their hands on elected officials, they killed a Capitol Police officer and left four other bodies in their wake.
We have just begun the truth-seeking that is necessary for accountability.
There is no justification for the Capitol being so poorly defended when far-right activists had been making their violent intentions plain for weeks. Journalists and researchers, including the Right Wing Watch team at my organization, People For the American Way, had been documenting threats of violence and calls for civil war by people who believed Trump’s lies about the election being stolen from him and his supporters.
It is impossible to ignore the difference between the light security at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the massive shows of force that were brought out for Black Lives Matter protests and other marches.
Did high-level law enforcement and military officials dismiss the threats from Trump supporters because they would be mostly white, because they were conservatives, because they were seen as allies of the law enforcement community? Their decisions left on-duty officers, as well as members of Congress, vulnerable. It was a fatal mistake.
Or was it something worse? The history of lynchings and racist mob violence in this country is also a history of complicity by law enforcement officials. Sometimes police officers led the violence, as they did at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Sometimes they were conveniently absent, as they were when Freedom Riders were left open to attack by an angry mob.
We are about to have new leadership at the Justice Department. And we have congressional leaders who are motivated to get the truth about what happened at the Capitol and to hold people accountable.
We the people have a role to play, too. We must demand that public officials not sacrifice accountability in the name of a false unity being called for by people who promoted the lies that fed rioters’ anger.
And we can honor Dr. King, the late John Lewis, and the other civil rights heroes we lost this year, by remaining alert and ready to resist the inevitable new attacks on voting rights that will come from politicians who are unhappy with the outcome of the 2020 elections and are desperate, like Donald Trump, to hang on to power.
And speaking of power, let’s celebrate another historical milestone this week: the swearing-in of Kamala Harris, a Black woman and daughter of immigrants, to serve as the vice president of the United States. Congratulations, Madam Vice President..
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.