WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 4, 2014) — Statement by Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine in observation of life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day Jr. on the occasion of the 46th anniversary of his assassination:
“As the nation pauses to remember the 46th anniversary of the unfortunate assassination of civil rights trailblazer Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is
important to reflect upon his prophetic and catalytic vision. As we approach two pivotal milestones: The 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this year, and the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, next year, we have reached a critical juncture in our nation’s quest for racial justice and equality.
A staunch civil rights advocate, Dr. King’s work inspired a national civil rights movement which led to the passage of critical civil rights legislation that opened doors for millions of minorities including the enfranchisement of blacks, the abolition of Jim Crow laws, and workers’ rights. Dr. King was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By speaking out, by educating the public, by organizing hundreds of marches and by mobilizing the public to pressure their legislators, he made civil rights a top priority for Congress.
President John F. Kennedy echoed Dr. King’s vision, calling civil rights a “moral issue” that was “as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” He went on to say “this Nation…will not be fully free until all its citizens are free,” and described how his proposed Civil Rights Act legislation would end unjust discrimination against African Americans. Kennedy, however, was assassinated just days after the bill was introduced.
In the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, and with the strong support of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act consists of 11 titles that outlaw major forms of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin and religion through protections for voting rights, prohibitions against, and remedies for discrimination in public facilities, orders for desegregation in public schools and facilities, prohibited the use of federal funds to support discriminatory actions, and proscriptions against employment discrimination.
The Act also created entities to facilitate the implementation of the legislation including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This Act, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, fulfilled part of Dr. King’s vision “to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
The same year the Civil Rights Act was enacted, President Johnson gave one of the most important State of the Union speeches ever, one that would further Dr. King’s vision of a more egalitarian society. After championing civil rights, President Johnson went on to say, “this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” He elaborated that “all of these increased opportunities — in employment, in education, in housing, and in every field-must be open to Americans of every color.”
This vision of a “Great Society” reflected Dr. King’s dream of economic prosperity, and established many programs that have significantly addressed poverty, including the Social Security Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the nation’s first food stamp program to combat hunger. In President Johnson’s 1965 speech on passage of the Voting Rights Act, he made clear that ending poverty is part of the campaign for human rights.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires uniform voter registration requirements, and prohibits literacy tests and other mechanisms used to hinder a citizen’s right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 supplemented these protections. Sadly, so many of these pillars of Dr. King’s Dream which have transformed American society are now in danger.
Last year, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires the Justice Department or a Federal court to approve any changes to voting, was effectively gutted this past year when the Supreme Court ruled Section 4 unconstitutional. Congress created Section 4 to identify those places with a history of racial discrimination that would be subject to increased scrutiny. The law was so effective because it stopped race-based disenfranchisement before any law could silence those minorities. The Voting Rights Act has consistently been reviewed and extended by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George W. Bush all signed renewals. That is why the recently introduced, bipartisan Voting Rights Act bill to fix effects of the Shelby decision is so vital.
As we reflect upon the tremendous legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ideals of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, we can rejoice over how far this nation has moved toward the goal of combating racial discrimination and inequality. However, we must also challenge our government, societal institutions, laws, and ourselves to be unrelenting in the pursuit of racial justice as we address systemic disparities in wealth, education, employment, housing, sentencing and the criminal justice system, voting, and more.
In recognizing Dr. King’s ultimate sacrifice of his life on this day so many years ago, we all should be compelled to embrace the continuing struggle for true racial equality. Together, we can achieve Dr. King’s “Dream” of equality for all.”
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. We celebrated our 50thanniversary in 2013 and continue our quest of “Moving America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and community development; employment; voting; education and environmental justice. www.lawyerscommittee.org