Today, my parents will be honored by the United States Congress during a ceremony observing the Congressional Gold Medal jointly awarded to them 10 years ago. The reason for this observance is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. But in a larger sense, today’s ceremony is not one of celebration but of mourning.
Not mourning for my parents, who, although I miss them, live on in the hearts of their family, of all who knew them, of millions of people across America and the globe and, in fact, in the very fabric of our nation and world today.
Mourning because, as we approach another anniversary, that of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are moving backward rather than forward in protecting our sacred right to vote and engaging more citizens in the voting process.
My parents did not crave honors and memorials. They lived and died for the progress of their people and this great nation we all share. As my father declared in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church shortly before his death, words that will live forever in stone at the far end of the National Mall:
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; say that I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter ...
I just want to leave a committed life behind.”
Therefore, instead of simply memorializing my parents and their work, I ask, why are we not carrying their work forward? Instead of recalling the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts that gave this nation its long-promised “new birth of freedom,” why are we not further expanding civil rights and voter participation in this country?
There is no denying that we have made great strides in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act. This ought to give pause to those who assert that no federal law ever did any good. That is why I hope that by next summer, when we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Congress will have worked with me in seeking federal legislation to make it easier for every citizen to vote.
One of the great shames of our country, the greatest democracy in the world, is that we rank 120th out of 169 countries in voter turnout and dead last among the Group of Eight nations. There are so many things we as a nation can do. I bet that most of our legislators don’t even know that we vote on a Tuesday because in 1845, Congress chose the one day that worked for farmers traveling in horse and buggy after the Sunday Sabbath and didn’t interfere with Market Day on Wednesday. Yet today, we are unwilling to update this tired system to help accommodate single parents or those working two or more jobs. Why can’t we have weekend voting or universal registration or no-excuse absentee ballots?
My parents are often remembered as “civil rights leaders,” but their concerns were broader. My father spoke against what he called “the triple evils” of racism, poverty and militarism, for he recognized these as intimately inter-related: It is the intolerance for those who are different that allows us to tolerate otherwise-unacceptable differences in opportunity, health, well-being and life expectancy.
My father’s final effort was his Poor People’s Campaign. If he were to return to us today, nearly a half century later, he would ask, Why do we face rising levels of poverty and inequality, and how do we tolerate it? My father believed in dignity, not dependence, for all men and women. That is why, on the day he died, he was engaged not in a fight for handouts but a fight for decent wages for those who labored hard in the jobs society needed but no one else wanted.
If he were to return to us today, nearly a half-century later, he would ask, Why do those who believe in work rather than welfare oppose raising the minimum wage to what it was in real terms the day he died?
As my mother said, “The problems of racism, poverty and war can all be summarized with one word, ‘violence.’ ” If my father were with us today, he would ask, Why, nearly 50 years after he was gunned down, are we still debating whether guns kill people? And my mother would wonder, Why, if people on the other side of the world so fear our values as to take up weapons, do we believe the best way to defeat them is with a new $3 billion battleship, rather than our values?
And that brings me back to where I started. As a nation dedicated to peaceful social change through the democratic process, oughtn’t we be the nation that is expanding access to the ballot box, not constricting it? Can we honestly say that we would be quite so tolerant of poverty and violence — across the world, across our country, and even right here in our nation’s capital — if we were less intolerant of the millions of Americans actively denied access to the ballot today in state capitals across this land?
That is why I earnestly hope for today to be not a culmination but a beginning — the beginning of a new effort to expand voting rights and a push for a much-needed update to the Voting Rights Act.
We need a VRA 2.0 to make sure all citizens of this great nation are able to participate in what my father and mother believed was the key to freedom, the key to justice: our constitutional right to vote. The ability to vote is the ability to reduce economic injustice, to end senseless violence and to restore the middle class. I realize that not everyone shares my views. But I honestly believe that we all share these goals. I therefore pray that we share not only these words of praise but also the work of progress — that we share not just this moment of reflection but also a year of action.
King is the eldest son of civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. He is the chairman of the Drum Major Institute.