President Brown Encourages Reflection on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1960s: Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African American civil rights (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Today is the 39th anniversary of the legislation that made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday—to be marked every year on the third Monday of January. Normally—a day for celebration. But today, I fear, it is bittersweet—a day to reflect and to recommit to our goals of true justice and equity.

There have been many heroes in the quest for justice in our country—many who fought on behalf of all Americans, regardless of race or religion or creed, that all may benefit from the privileges of citizenship that flow from our constitution and Bill of Rights. But none more of an icon than Martin Luther King, Jr.

His fabled “I Have a Dream” speech, the highlight of the 1963 March on Washington, has served as inspiration for freedom and equality worldwide. Over the years, the massive march, with its hundreds of thousands of peaceful participants, and the speech itself, helped to propel this nation to progress in its quest for civil rights. In 1965, he led another march—one from Selma to Montgomery—that explicitly insisted on the right of all citizens to vote. Five months later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson with Dr. King present.

Today, so much of what we gained thanks to Dr. King’s labors is at risk. In recent years, the rights embedded in the Voting Rights Act have been compromised—at both the federal and state level—so much so that new federal laws are now being proposed to reinstate and reinforce the right of all citizens to vote.

Indeed, the family of Martin Luther King, Jr. has just asked that no celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day take place without the passage of that legislation. As one member of his family said, “Voting rights was a cornerstone of his legacy. … We cannot celebrate that legacy with this current attack on access to the ballot box.” There is no better way, she said, to observe this holiday than to stand for democracy and the rights of others.

Today, we can stand with the King family and take on the challenges that remain. As Dr. King himself said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” On this day, let us reflect on the meaning of his words and do all that we must both individually and collectively to see his hopes realized.

Dr. Joyce F. Brown

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