Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is an occasion for reflection, celebration, and recommitment. On this birthday, 50 years from the signing of the Voting Rights Act, there is much to celebrate. The progress America has made toward his dream of racial justice and equality is a legitimate source of pride.
We have an African American President and three women on the Supreme Court, including a Latina; the upper levels of corporate America, government and academia are far more diverse than they were 50 years ago, and a rising, multi-racial electorate is changing the political landscape for the future.
But as we commemorate Dr. King’s work and the victories of the civil rights era, his example calls us also to consider what is left unfinished.
Voting rights for millions of Americans remain under assault. Since the 2000 election, we have seen hundreds of restrictive voting bills introduced and dozens passed. Since the Supreme Court gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act, elected officials in many of our states have responded by creating new barriers to registration and voting.
We also have more work to do on Dr. King’s quest for human dignity and economic security for every American. Millions of our citizens of every creed and color are trapped in dead-end jobs with stagnant wages. The home ownership dreams of too many young people are simply out of reach. Older workers are having to work for years past the retirement age. The high cost of college tuition leaves students in debt or blocks their ability to earn a degree which is the surest path to the middle class. And we have just learned that a majority of public school students actually live in poverty.
All of these challenges are coming in an America that is richer than ever, with record corporate profits and a Dow Jones average which has quadrupled in just 20 years. But we are experiencing historic levels of income inequality, with most of our prosperity going to those who already are wealthy. The richest one percent Americans control as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent.
History tells us that power follows wealth, and concentrated wealth means concentrated power. We see that power today in the growth of a small group of wealthy political investors, helped along by a Supreme Court that declared that money equals speech and that corporations and wealthy individuals have a constitutional right to spend whatever they like to influence our elections.
These investors’ outsized influence in politics and government distorts our decision-making processes dramatically, helping them thwart popular support for laws that – among other things -- would break wage stagnation, provide sensible gun laws, protect our environment, and put a tighter rein on Wall Street speculation. The threat posed by our deepening economic inequality goes beyond economics; it is a danger to democracy.
For 45 years, Common Cause has been dedicated to reform, organizing a citizens’ lobby — nationally and in states across the country -- that promotes the core values of democracy and an open, honest and accountable government. And while we have major challenges ahead, there are many examples today where reform campaigns are making a real difference.
- Even as 22 states have erected new barriers to the ballot box, 16 others have expanded access to the polls; 11 states now permit people to register and vote on the same day, and California is set to join the list next year.
- In response to the flood of big money into our elections, five million Americans have signed petitions demanding a constitutional amendment that would permit us to level the political playing field and restore sensible limits on political spending. New York City and states including Maine, Arizona and Connecticut have implemented campaign finance systems that empower small-dollar donors and bring new people and new thinking into public office.
- Despite a determined and well-financed effort by telecommunications companies to prevent it, the Federal Communications Commission appears poised to strengthen the legal framework that has fueled the growth of the Internet, protected free and fair access, and helped make cyberspace our new public square.
- California, Iowa, and other states have begun to change how districts are drawn, so that voters choose their representatives, not the other way around. And energetic efforts are underway in many states to enact fair redistricting laws as well.
Common Cause is engaged in these fights, and committed to moving forward. None of us will ever match Dr. King’s vision and his eloquence.But we can follow his example by drawing on today’s successes and building on today’s activism to dream, and to build a 21st century coalition, drawn from the remarkable breadth of our population, that will advance an agenda for shared prosperity and an inclusive and vibrant democracy.
We believe in the promise of democracy, in the vision of Dr. King, and we think most Americans do, too. So on his birthday, we recommit ourselves to the historic task of truly fulfilling his dream.
Office: Common Cause National