Yesterday communities across the country, including here in Seattle, came together to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every year, in the days leading up to “MLK Day”, we hear speeches on the radio, TV and in our schools and churches about how far we’ve come in the struggle for equity. It’s true, gone are the days of segregated lunch counters, busses and drinking fountains. And gone are the days of lynching, fire hosing and honoring of old Jim Crow laws. In many ways, the Civil Rights Movement was a success.
But let me stop you for a moment and ask you this: What are civil rights? For me, civil rights are laws and policies that weave together our unified principles and commitment to ensuring that all people have unfettered access to opportunity regardless of the color of your skin. That is why, as a civil rights attorney, I advocated for the passage of new and the protection of old civil rights.
Dr. King gave his life for civil rights in 1968. While I hope that Dr. King would be proud of how far we’ve come in this struggle for equity, I also believe that we are not there yet. Indeed, as we embark on a presidential election that will replace America’s first black President, we are faced with an attack on voting rights and a national rhetoric of hate and fear. In many ways, the insidious discrimination that Dr. King and thousands more fought against has changed its face.
For example, the top-polling Republican presidential candidate unapologetically proclaimed that all Mexican immigrants, like my parents, are rapists and drug dealers. He is now advocating that America should turn her back on Muslim refugees fleeing from the tyrannical rule of terrorists. We also see the lack of equity in policing, which has given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. When we learn that a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man during a traffic stop, we roll back civil rights. When we learn that police officers choked and killed an unarmed black man selling cigarettes on a sidewalk, we roll back civil rights. These incidents, even if not criminally sanctioned, are an assault on the legacy that Dr. King left to us to protect.
Yes, we’ve come a long way. We are no longer fighting against overt segregation and discrimination. Today, we are fighting something much harder to root out. We are fighting a sometimes quiet bias, sometimes buried so deep that those who carry it, don’t know that they do.
How do we fight this invisible enemy? By using those very tools that Dr. King gave us half a century ago. Tools like funding education, fighting income inequality and protecting our right to vote. When we empower ourselves with our vote and elect leaders committed to equity, we all win. When we enact policies that create opportunity for children in every home in our city, we all win. When we legislate to protect working families, we all win. Only when leaders in Seattle and beyond choose to deliberately create equity in every policy matter that comes before us, will we see the legacy of Dr. King appropriately honored.
I believe we can get there in my lifetime. Today, more families have access to healthcare in our country than ever before. Today, more women are entering the workforce with college degrees than men. Today, the City of Seattle is in the initial stages of enacting universal preschool. Today, we have a majority female Seattle City Council, with the first Latina Councilmember and the first enrolled Native American Councilmember.
In closing, I quote our President who this past week in his final State of the Union Address stated, “America has been through big changes before … Each time there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change; who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the ‘dogmas of the quiet past.’ Instead we thought anew, and acted anew.”
It is a new year. Let’s take this moment to recommit ourselves to the legacy of Dr. King not just on one day but every day.
Yours in service,
Councilmember M. Lorena González
Seattle City Council, Position 9 (Citywide)
Chair – Gender Equity, Safe Communities & New Americans
Vice-Chair – Education, Governance & Equity