Often lost in our celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. is his unwavering testimony of hope and his political action in the face of despair and nihilism, forces that have the potential to thwart otherwise transformative movements. We often remember Dr. King’s hope as a more passive “dream” instead of the definitive declaration of “Normalcy, Never Again” which was the intended title of his revered 1963 speech. Nonetheless, no time is riper than 2018 to commemorate Dr. King’s true legacy by exercising political action and demonstrating unwavering hope in the face of circumstances that naturally call for the blues.
No doubt, anti-democratic forces have penetrated American politics and those forces have the potential to breed widespread hopelessness and political apathy. For example, gerrymandering – the partisan act of creating voting districts in favor of one’s own political party – has led to situations like that in Virginia, where 55 percent of voters pulled the levers for Democrats to only lose the House of Delegates by the drawing of straws. These Virginians, and other marginalized voters, could lose hope and sit out future elections conceding that their votes and voices matter little.
Anti-democratic proposals—including a bid by Jeff Sessions to require Census respondents to answer self-incriminating questions about their immigration status—have the potential to discourage participation in a process that determines the size of each state’s congressional delegation and each state’s receipt of federal funds for essential programs like quality public education. Such forces do more to depress civic participation, and they create a disconnected class of Americans, rather than encourage lawfulness.Many pre-civil rights era measures that suppressed minority voters, like poll taxes and literacy tests, have despicable descendants that plague the modern-day electoral system. Discriminatory voter identification laws, voter roll purges, limitations on early voting procedures, and other impediments to voter registration and ballot casting continue to suppress Americans to this day.
Despite the times, if the legacy of Dr. King means anything, today’s challenges are a call for increased involvement in our democratic process. A number of democratic victories reaffirm Dr. King’s call to “accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” A recent federal court decision that found North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandered districts, which unjustifiably favored Republicans 10 to 3, unconstitutional provides persuasive arguments as to why the Supreme Court should conclude the same in two pending cases. If the Supreme Court adopts North Carolina’s reasoning, the result may be a more leveled political playing field during 2018 midterm congressional elections, and a more accountable Washington, as a result.
Democratic Senator Doug Jones’ statewide victory in Alabama is also an example of why our infinite hope should always trump finite disappointment, especially in the electoral process. If only a few voters lost hope and decided to sit out the Alabama senatorial race, the result could have been status quo in the Senate during a time where resistance to anti-democratic forces in Washington is needed more than ever.
We must heed the words of the great man we honor today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who warned us that “history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” As Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Political Action Committee, I am inspired by Dr. King’s infinite hope now more than ever before. This year, concerned citizens can make Dr. King’s philosophy real in the voting booth. Lawyers can do the same in the courts, as well as advocates throughout the halls of Congress and state legislatures. If we all maintain hope and action, the outcome will be a more democratic America where our institutions reflect our true values, not the perverted aspirations of the powerful few.Congressman Gregory W. Meeks represents the 5th Congressional District of New York and is the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Political Action Committee.
Feature photo: King at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.