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In These Times, We Must Hold Fast to Dr. King’s Vision

Brenda Wright

As we celebrate Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, it’s worth reflecting on Dr. King’s last campaign, which brought him to Tennessee to protect the rights of public sector workers to unionize. In February 1968, two Black sanitation workers in Memphis had been crushed to death by faulty equipment. The city's sanitation workers organized a strike for job safety, better pay, and the right to unionize, and Dr. King, who was organizing his Poor People’s Campaign for economic equality and opportunity, took on their cause.  

Preparing for a peaceful march in April, Dr. King addressed the sanitation workers, reflecting that: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now… I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” Sanitation workers only prevailed and won a union after Dr. King’s assassination, which happened just two days after that speech.

This history shines a necessary, if harsh, light on our politics and our judicial system today, nearly 50 years later. Today, the rights of working people to band together and unionize are under severe attack. And unfortunately, the Supreme Court is poised to lead the backward march. Just this month, the Court heard arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers’ Association, which asks the Court to overrule decades of precedent protecting the ability of working people to win fair wages and working conditions through effective unionizing.  

If the Court’s conservative majority embraces that demand, it will be the latest in a radical transformation the Court has been undergoing in recent years.

Instead of applying the Constitution to protect marginalized people from the tyranny of discrimination and economic subjugation, a five-person majority now uses its immense power to protect the wealthiest few. We saw that in Citizens United, which gave us the Anatole France First Amendment: the Constitution, in its majestic impartiality, now allows the wealthiest corporations and the poorest citizens alike to spend as much as they have in order to elect their preferred candidates to office. We saw it when the same five-person majority used the Constitution to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that has been instrumental in protecting against racial and language minority discrimination in voting and elections—unleashing a wave of discriminatory voting laws across the country.

Even the doctrine of one person, one vote—a fundamental tenet of American democracy under the Fourteenth Amendment—is under threat in the current Court, in a case called Evenwel v. Abbott that will be decided this year.

When so much of the progress we have fought for is under attack, we must hold fast to a better vision of the Constitution. As Dr. King said in his most famous speech, “when the architects of our Great Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Demos is proud to be in the battle to pursue that vision of the Constitution, joining with civil rights organizations in an amicus brief to oppose the evisceration of public sector unions in Friedrichs; authoring a brief in Evenwel v. Abbott to defend the right to equal representation; and, more broadly, articulating a new vision of the constitutional principles that must undergird the regulation of money in politics in order to lead us out of the Inequality Era and provide working families a fair shot at upward mobility and basic economic security.  

The battle will not be won overnight; but even if “the arc of the moral universe is long,” as Dr. King reminded us, we must do all we can to make sure that it “tilts toward justice.”