“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
These words by Martin Luther King Jr. resonate every day.
There's great suffering and injustice in our world. And we must commit to making our cities, state, country, and world more just and equitable in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In honor of every beloved human on the planet, our charge is no less than to work for inclusion, belonging and care.
The truth is we do not live in a just and equitable society at any level. The beloved community King spoke of is not a reality.
We are in times of deep division and trauma, and not only must we press forward toward a future in which each of us in our myriad identities belongs, we must do so together. Majority systems — wealthy, corporate, white, and other forms of supremacy – will do all they can to maintain power, including attempts to divide those of us seeking to overcome such forms of supremacy. This is something we must fight against with every fiber of our being.
We are together examining issues of racism, gender justice, immigrant rights, youth rights, disability rights and where systems are failing to live up to our country’s stated ideals.
So, what is required if we really want to see a transformation and sustain ourselves for this work? I do not have all the answers. I am a seeker along with you for a better future.
In that spirit, I offer a few suggestions for how to begin.
First, we must acknowledge and reckon with our country’s history of systemic racism — this includes being able to teach and talk about these concepts in our schools.
As a lawyer and advocate, working in civil legal aid and in civil rights and civil liberties for three decades – as well as living in my identity as a cisgender Black woman – I have witnessed and experienced that, living in the United States, we are all swimming in the poisonous waters of racism, patriarchy and ableist systems.
Sadly, our society was built on exclusion. Our founding institutions were built on multiple original sins, including the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the stealing of their lands and culture, and the chattel slavery of Black people brought forcibly from Africa and trafficked throughout the Americas. Today, this pattern of exclusion continues in immigration systems and policies targeting migrants from Mexico and Central America and those who practice Islam. We have criminal legal system policies, which from policing to sentencing to mass incarceration, single out Black and brown people. We have health care systems that cater to the needs of the majority culture, while ignoring the needs of those who do not fit the mold.
This is what we're living in. These exclusions were intentional, not accidental, and the evidence is apparent throughout our history. I encourage you to take a look at the Who We Are Project, which chronicles the historical record of intentionally built, enforced, and ingrained racism and exclusion in this country.
Notwithstanding, or perhaps because of the evidence of exclusion in front of us, state Legislatures across the country have censored and silenced educators.
We cannot allow this erasure of our country’s exclusionary history to stand.
Knowing the truth allows us to heal, to rectify, to be in genuine community with each other. Failing to teach the perspectives of all peoples, their experiences and the truthful record of our history is a disservice to all of us.
Next, we celebrate the accomplishments for equity and justice we’ve achieved together, working in community.
We’ve endured tremendous setbacks, but we’ve also made great strides. We must acknowledge both realities.
Voting is a cornerstone of our democracy, yet the fight for voting rights and access to the ballot remains as fraught and critical as ever.
In the wake of Shelby v. Holder, the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that dismantled key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, politicians across the country continue to engage in voter suppression efforts, including enacting obstacles to registration, cutbacks on early voting or hours of voting and strict voter identification requirements.
Right now, the ACLU is litigating voter suppression and minority vote dilution cases in more than a dozen states in every region to maintain and restore access to the ballot. In Washington, we helped secure a huge victory for the rights of disenfranchised voters during the 2021 legislative session through our support of the Voting Rights Restoration bill, which automatically restores the right to vote for people when they are released from prison. We remain steadfast and committed to efforts at the federal and state levels to expand access to the ballot.
Finally, we acknowledge that the work is hard and the times we’re living through are filled with trauma and suffering. It is easy to feel overwhelmed – with the COVID-19 pandemic still threatening our lives and health care systems, concerns about the strength and durability of our democracy in front of us, and the racism and other forms of exclusion that remain at heightened levels. But we also know there have been many movements of the past when people triumphed over seemingly insurmountable odds.
I would like to share with you one of those moments – the Montgomery Bus Boycott – that gives me strength to continue this work.
In December 1955, the Black residents of Montgomery, Alabama, refused to ride the city’s buses after Rosa Parks was arrested for not rising to give her seat to a white man. The Black riders’ protest against segregation took huge commitment. At a time when many of Montgomery’s Black residents lived far from their jobs in factories or as domestic workers, they walked rain or shine, adding hours to already long days, often facing angry taunts and violent attacks along the way. The boycott lasted for 381 days, until December 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal court’s ruling that racially segregated seating on buses violated the 14th Amendment.
381 days. The people who boycotted certainly struggled on many of those 381 days. How many worn down pairs of shoes? How many hours of driving rain and wind? How much must their feet have ached? But they kept their eyes on the prize of racial equality. I can do that, too. Remembering what is at stake, remembering that the prize is equity and justice, so can you. We can do it together. We can remember it is worth putting ourselves out for all of us to be free.
So, on this day set aside to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others who stayed in the fight for equity and justice – no matter the cost – I ask that you join me to remember King’s words, which continue to guide us toward the just and equitable future we seek.
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
Executive Director, ACLU of Washington