Martin Luther King’s legacy under siege 

NPS / Bill Shugarts

Martin Luther King’s legacy is under attack as civil rights laws are being challenged in the courts and state legislatures, and attempts to suppress and rewrite America’s history of racism and the long struggle against it are being challenged by school boards across the country. 

The past 10 years have seen repeated attacks on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a crucial part of Dr. King’s legacy. In 2013, the Supreme Court ended preclearance for changes in state voting laws, eviscerating a critical component of the Voting Rights Act. 

Free from oversight, states began implementing restrictions on voting rights designed to diminish the electoral power of voters of color. That movement has accelerated in the past few years under the pretense of preventing election fraud. 

In 2021, another Supreme Court decision (Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee)  further weakened the Voting Rights Act. Republicans in Congress repeatedly stymied efforts to pass new protections for voting rights.  

Since the 2020 election, Republicans in statehouses across the country have introduced hundreds of bills restricting voting rights and gerrymandering election districts to dilute Black voter strength. These bills, many of which have become state laws, include decreasing the number of polling sites, especially in poor and Black neighborhoods; restricting opportunities for early or absentee voting; and imposing new conditions and restrictions on voter registration. 

Florida banned bringing food or water to voters standing in line. Because of other restrictions in voting, Florida voters sometimes spend upwards of four, five, six, or more hours waiting in line at polling sites.

The new Jim Crow 

Senator Raphael Warnock, who is the pastor of Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, calls these laws “Jim Crow in new clothes.” In the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement and the legacy of Dr. King, Senator Warnock writes:

“A vote is sacred. It avows the worth of every human being. It is, in essence, a prayer for the kind of world we desire for ourselves and our children.” 

Hard-won civil rights battles waged by Dr. King and other civil rights activists outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment. These laws were passed and upheld and are the foundation for civil rights advocacy for other oppressed groups. 

Today, attacks jeopardize those civil rights laws. 

Multiple lawsuits claim that the religious liberty of business owners allows businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. In one of those lawsuits, a wedding cake baker claimed that her business should not have to bake cakes for gay couples because of her religious belief that gay marriage is wrong.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the same claim being applied to baking a wedding cake for an interracial couple. One of those lawsuits will come before the Supreme Court this term, raising the specter of legalized discrimination.

Revisionist history

Across the country, right-wing legislators and organizers are trying to selectively rewrite history. Ruby Bridges wrote a children’s book— “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story”—about her experiences as a six-year-old Black child integrating her all-White elementary school in New Orleans. Texas lawmakers put that book on a list targeted for investigation and banning. Books by and about Black people have been removed from schools and libraries across the country. Other Black authors targeted by conservatives include Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Ibrahim X Kendi. 

In Florida, the Individual Freedom Act, popularly known as the “Stop Woke Act,” bans teaching about race and history or anything that will make White students feel guilty about racism. From elementary schools to universities, the law threatens education and teachers. For some, the law and the fear it brings have ended teaching about race and racism, even leading to the cancellation of college courses.  

Attacks on Dr. King’s legacy will not prevail. Resolute defenders of voting rights meet voter suppression with one court challenge after another. Despite Republican opposition, staunch civil rights advocates in Congress and state legislatures fight for continuing and even expanded legal protection for civil rights. More lawsuits challenge restrictions on teaching and book banning.

In his last speech, Dr. Martin Luther King described what he saw: “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” Despite a troubling outlook, Dr. King found hope in that moment: 

“And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it… Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” 

From student textbooks to state legislatures to Congress and the Supreme Court, the beloved community continues to protect and build upon the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. 

Have an opinion? Share it below.