The 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination comes amid a fierce struggle for the soul of America.
We will celebrate the progress that has been made since Dr. King was taken from us in 1968, and decry the agenda that is still unfinished. But we cannot ignore the systematic effort – from the highest offices of government – to roll back his legacy, to make America more separate and unequal, to reverse the progress of the last years.
From the White House and across the great cabinets of the federal government, civil rights are being systematically undermined. President Trump has set the tone personally, slandering immigrants and seeking to ban Muslims, while noting there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville.
He pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, allowing him to avoid accountability for racially profiling Latinos. He terminated the Obama program that protected the DACA children, and sabotaged every bipartisan effort to protect these children who know no other country than the U.S. He called for NFL players protesting against discrimination to be fired, while slurring “s–hole countries” in Africa.
In different departments, his appointees have moved relentlessly to roll back enforcement of civil rights, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions leading the way. DOJ lawyers reversed their position on voting rights cases, like that in Texas, essentially opening the door for voter suppression.
Sessions forced a review of Obama-era consent decrees with police departments, even as Trump praised brutal police tactics. He drastically limited the use of court-enforced consent decrees themselves, eviscerating the primary instrument of civil rights enforcement. Sessions has also declared that civil rights laws protecting against workplace discrimination do not apply to transgender workers.
His labor secretary disbanded a 40-year-old division enforcing laws against discrimination in the workplace. His education secretary, billionaire Betsy DeVos, disemboweled the department’s office of civil rights and pushed to move public funds to support voucher programs, while calling for deep cuts in the staff and budget of the education department.
His secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, has gutted enforcement of civil rights and fair housing laws, at the very moment the department must disburse billions in disaster recovery Community Block Grants that could help reverse past wrongs. Carson even pushed to strike the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from HUD’s mission statement.
Abroad, Trump has expanded the endless wars without victory that King warned against. He has slashed taxes on the wealthy and corporations while targeting basic programs for the vulnerable – from food stamps to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid – for deep cuts. He sought to repeal Obamacare, which would have deprived millions of health care.
This is a direct and sustained assault on Dr. King’s legacy.
Dr. King fought for integration against discrimination. He marched for equal opportunity against entrenched inequality. He championed non-violence against violence. He campaigned for voting rights, knowing that democracy offered the best chance for change. He called for an end to the war in Vietnam, realizing that the bombs being dropped on Vietnam were landing in the poor neighborhoods of our cities.
At the end of his life, he was organizing a broad coalition of poor people, across lines of race, religion and region, to march on Washington to demand basic economic rights.
No representative of the administration will appear in Memphis as we mark the anniversary of his assassination. More reason that a new generation must take up the mission of his life.
He taught us that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” He knew that the progress that the Civil Rights Movement was making would generate a fierce reaction. He called on us to “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world.”
We have work to do.