In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.: What should we do together today?

Thursday, January 11, 2024
I am grateful that we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday every year. In marking the day, we hold space to remember not just Dr. King’s immense accomplishments, but also the ongoing struggle in this country for civil rights and equality for all. The work of Dr. King continues to serve as the ultimate clarion call to justice, particularly for communities made marginalized or vulnerable through discrimination and exclusion. Coretta Scott King always urged that MLK Day be considered not a day “off” but a day “on”— a day to rededicate ourselves to service. As we commemorate this day, I urge all of us to center Dr. King’s work and his message as a lifelong commitment to equity and justice.

Then and now

Black Americans faced tremendous challenges during Dr. King’s lifetime. In many communities, Black people were forced by law or custom to sit at the back of public transportation and give up their seats to white customers. Segregation and “separate but equal” policies led to radically unequal conditions for Black people in education and in public accommodations. Water fountains and restrooms were segregated. Voting rights for Black people were actively suppressed in many states and Black victims of violence and crime were routinely denied legal justice.

Much of Dr. King’s work focused on racial justice due to the specific inequities Black Americans faced during Jim Crow. But toward the end of his life, Dr. King spoke more directly to the connections between racial inequality and the plight of all people living in poverty, regardless of race. Indeed, during the last year of his life, Dr. King spoke out about the related “three evils of society”: poverty, racism and militarism. Those conditions persist today and we see them inextricably linked in myriad ways.

Dr. King and the hundreds of foot soldiers, named and unnamed, who participated in the civil rights movement made huge gains. And yet, we are still fighting to overcome the legacy of discrimination and exclusion that animated the resistance of his times.

Today, we face a resurgence in voter suppression along with an active campaign to sow doubt about the safety of our voting systems – this despite numerous studies verifying the absence of any significant fraud in voting. Today, we face assaults on individual rights to bodily autonomy and health care. Book banning movements across the country seek to eliminate topics related to race and LGBTQIA2S+ stories, thus excluding those voices from our collective American story and identity. And while “separate but equal” laws were judicially overturned decades ago, there remain vast inequalities in education and other public services, particularly for those living in low income or majority minority communities. At the same time, over-policing and surveillance continue to plague these same marginalized communities.

The call to beloved community

Dr. King’s call to beloved community is no less than a call to full belonging and inclusion for all. While we do not have to agree on all things, one truth cannot be denied: All have a right to BE. Regardless of your race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability or disability, all identities should be valued and receive equitable access to the resources required to live life fully. This is ultimately a message of liberation. It is why we fight so relentlessly for the rights of all. From safeguarding access to affordable, quality health care to advocating for meaningful criminal legal reform, ACLU-WA is ready. To find out more about where that fight will take us this year in Olympia, see our 2024 Legislative Agenda. And to dig deeper into ACLU-WA’s long term strategy to disrupt legalized oppression and build a thriving democracy for everyone in Washington, see our new five-year Program Plan.

Freedom requires vigilance

Many understand the arc of history and the battle for civil rights and civil liberties as a non-linear path. Recent assaults on established rights serve as a bracing reminder of how quickly freedom can be upended. Who knew that after decades of resistance and advocacy for reproductive rights, the hard-won precedent established by Roe v. Wade (1973) would be eliminated overnight with the Dobbs ruling in 2022? Who could anticipate that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be significantly rolled back by the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013, which would then lead to radical erosion of voter protections over the next several years? These shocking reversals remind us that we must remain vigilant. At ACLU-WA, vigilance is our commitment. But we cannot do it alone.

We are all in this together  

Perhaps the most important lesson from Dr. King and the civil rights movement is this: We must be in the struggle together. An estimated 40,000 Black bus riders and their allies participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott on the first day of the protests, which lasted from Dec. 1955 through Dec. 1956. Their collective action led to the city’s buses being desegregated – a huge victory for civil rights and an important reminder that systemic change requires all of us for justice to prevail.

Some, like our committed staff at ACLU-WA, jump in on the front lines, filing lawsuits, advocating in the Legislature, and lifting up community. But everyone has a role to play and valuable resources to share. Some use their time to write or contact lawmakers. Others make their voices heard at events such as ACLU-WA’s upcoming Advocacy Day in Olympia. [You can register for the Jan. 24 event here.] Others support this work with monetary donations. Others talk to friends and family about why belonging matters and how our laws and policies can either support or undermine our values.
When we are all in this together, we also make space for rest and renewal. Sometimes it feels like we’re engaged in an eternal battle requiring 24/7 attention. But when we all commit to making our laws and policies better for everyone, we can take turns tapping out for a break. Rest, after all, is also a justice imperative.

With an important presidential election fast approaching, it is not hyperbole to say that democracy is on the line. In the spirit of Dr. King, I hope we will be mindful of where we have been as a country and where we need to go. I hope we will remember the call to beloved community. I hope we will be vigilant in the fight for justice and equity. And I hope we will stay in this together, ensuring we all do our part. Together, we can share our resources of time, money, rest, and care to defend and expand equity and justice for all.

May peace and justice prevail.
Michele Storms is Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington.
Explore More: