Black leaders, advocates reflect on MLK Day

On what would have been the 95th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., leading Black voices are expressing concerns over the status of the civil rights the slain advocate fought tirelessly to pass.

The Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill that the dream King spoke of more than 60 years ago is “as relevant today as it was in 1963,” and the commitment to seeing that dream come to fruition “is as important as ever before.”

“This is not because Black America has not seen progress, because we certainly have, but because those hard-won victories are now under attack,” said Sharpton.

“Civil rights are under attack at a scale that we have not seen since then. Voting rights, affirmative action, diversity in the workplace, and economic opportunity are in the crosshairs of radical right-wing activists who feel more comfortable than ever before to reveal their racist motives,” he added. “And their goal, ultimately, is to remove opportunities for Black and Brown Americans to advance economically in this nation. They want to achieve this by curbing our political power, keeping us out of higher education.”

Advocates and elected leaders alike have expressed concerns over what some have described as voter suppression, which disproportionately affects Black voters, as well as congressional redistricting.

Others, however, are focused on the battle unfolding in classrooms.

Since 2021, 44 states have proposed legislation restricting curriculum on race and racism in the United States, according to Education Week. Most notably, these restrictions include limiting access to books written by Black authors, like Pulitzer-prize winner Toni Morrison, over “divisive” concepts.

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) came under fire last year for approving a school curriculum that required students to learn that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, an organization dedicated to building Black political power, pointed out King faced similar political tension as he fought for civil liberties.

“These are historic times, where the country stands at the proverbial crossroads, a place that Dr. King was very familiar with and gave his life to lead us down the path toward a more perfect union,” said Shropshire.

“I’d like to think that if Dr. King were with us today, he would insist that we directly confront the persistent three great evils of racism, poverty, and militarism. I believe that he would challenge our backsliding away from voting rights, our commitment to diversity and opportunity, and the erasure of a painful but instructive history,” she added, alluding to the recent growth of book bans and limitations on the teaching of Black history.

“I feel certain that were he here, not only would he insist that we acknowledge the painful reality of our current condition but he would just as forcefully remind us of the future that can be,” she added. “He would inspire us to struggle for the America that countless generations of Black Americans believed could be made real. He would remind us of the moral arc and where it must ultimately lead us. And he would insist that we hold on to hope.”

And amid the fight against diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at the state and federal levels, Sharpton said King would have “undoubtedly” stood in support of such initiatives.

“In fact, he would be leading our charge,” Sharpton said. “The March on Washington was not only about civil rights but also aimed at securing jobs and freedom. That’s why we called the 60th anniversary last summer not a commemoration but a continuation, because the work goes on.”

At the federal level, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the “conscious of the Congress” has accepted the “baton of justice and economic opportunity that the founders and those who came before us have fought to advance.”

“With threats to our democracy and access to the ballot box and with attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we are more engaged than ever as a Caucus to push back against those who want to see us less free and with fewer opportunities of advancement,” Horsford said in a statement to The Hill.

But some are warning that the loss of political power for Black Americans has put the entire legacy of King in jeopardy.

Color of Change, a leading civil rights organization, said there must be real solutions to build political power that can create a less hostile world for all people.

“Social change isn’t a straight line and I believe that Dr. King’s work continues to call us to fight for a world that is more empathetic and compassionate,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, said in a statement to The Hill.

“To achieve progress and change he took tremendous risks and faced unimaginable threats that eventually took his life. We should never forget, or allow others to forget, the deep risk and well-organized and funded forces that stand in the way of progress for Black folks and this country as a whole,” Robinson added. “Remembering Dr. King isn’t simply about celebrating the dream but being clear-eyed about the individuals and institutions that advance the nightmare.”

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