As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it seems appropriate to look at King’s legacy in the area of civil rights. By the time Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he and his movement had made great strides. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been signed into law making it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In addition, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been enacted guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote as protected by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
It seemed that segregation and racism in the United States were coming to an end. However, that has not been the case.
According to recent studies, the US is more segregated today than it was in 1968. The white flight from the inner cities to the suburbs and the end of forced busing of school children has led to nearly lily white, well-funded suburban schools and mostly black, underfunded schools in the inner cities. More and more children from wealthy white families have been enrolled in virtually all-white private schools. And, to further accelerate segregation, Teapublican legislatures and Congress have passed new laws authorizing the redistribution of funding from public schools to charter schools, private schools and religious schools.
With regard to voting rights, Teapublicans have enacted restrictive voter ID laws in numerous states to suppress the black vote. They have limited polling hours making it more difficult for poor, working people to find time to vote. They have reduced the number of polling stations in poor, black neighborhoods creating long lines of voters. And the conservative-dominated Supreme Court has eviscerated the Voting Rights Act to make it more difficult for the Justice Department to prevent voter suppression.
On the positive side, the GLBT community has won the right for same sex marriage in 36 states. Yet, with the Supreme Court agreeing to review a lower court decision to uphold same sex marriage bans in four states, the gains in other states are now in limbo.
The opportunity for poor black students to have access to a college education is also in doubt following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling which limits affirmative action. Yet another Supreme Court decision has created special rules for religious organizations, and numerous state legislature bills have opened the door for further religious discrimination as if it isn’t already bad enough. (A recent study found that atheists are marginalized and subjected to discrimination. For Muslims, the situation may be even worse.)
Finally, racism is on the rise, made worse by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Staten Island, the Bronx and elsewhere. And the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has noted a tremendous rise in the number of hate groups since the election of our first black president.
It’s clear that much of what Martin Luther King, Jr. lived for and died for is in jeopardy. It’s up to all of us to ensure that he did not die in vain.