WASHINGTON — Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
The title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book, published in 1967 after Selma and after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, poses a perennially appropriate question — about our country’s struggle over race, of course, but also about our larger quest for justice.
It is much better than the question President Obama rightly scorned on Saturday as he honored the 50th anniversary of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” in one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency. To ask if our current struggles, in Ferguson, MO, and elsewhere, suggest that “with respect to race, little has changed in this country” would sound absurd to those who lived through the oppression of the past.
Neither the demonstrators nor the police who pummeled them as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 could have imagined that in 2015, an African-American president would be leading the ceremonies memorializing the moment. They would have been just as astonished that the states of the Old Confederacy now send one African-American to the Senate and 19 to the House, including John Lewis, whose beating on the bridge marked the beginning of his career as a national treasure.
But politics rarely produces final victories, and even the victories that do endure are often partial. Thus did Obama insist that a true love of country entails a belief “that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation.”
So it must be with race and with justice. We commemorated Selma less than two years after the United States Supreme Court had struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the product, as Obama said, “of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence.” The Court’s ruling opened the way for many states to pass laws infringing on access to the ballot.
And the weekend’s events came just days after the release of the Justice Department’s devastating report on policing in Ferguson. It found that in a city that is two-thirds African-American, 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests over a two-year period involved blacks.
“A single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, referring to the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Dr. King was right: The alternative to community is chaos. His question stands: Where do we go from here?
At a minimum, Congress should honor Selma by restoring an effective Voting Rights Act, once a bipartisan cause. Why should Republicans walk away from their party’s most commendable traditions?
But let’s be more adventurous and make voting in federal elections an obligation of citizenship. “How,” Obama asked, “do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?” Yes, “compulsory voting” seems a nonstarter in the United States, as my political scientist friends Tom Mann, Norm Ornstein and I well know. The three of us have been arguing for this idea based on our experiences in Australia, a country for which we have great affection, where voters are required to go to the polls. The system works well, raising turnout especially among the less well-to-do and the less ideological. This creates a more moderate and more representative electorate. Crucially, such a law tells state and local governments that instead of creating barriers to voting, they should ease the way for citizens to fulfill their civic duty.
And we must re-engage the larger point King made in 1967: That the fruits of civil rights victories would not be widely shared until “the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice.” Noting that two-thirds of poor Americans at the time were white, King expressed hope that “both Negro and white will act in coalition” on behalf of full employment or, in the alternative, in support of a guaranteed income for all Americans.
“There is nothing but a lack of social vision,” King wrote, “to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer.”
But achieving this social vision requires a political system that genuinely represents the hospital worker, the maid and the day laborer, which was the point of Selma’s suffering. At the moment, ours doesn’t.
So the struggle in Selma was successful, but it isn’t over. “America is not yet finished,” Obama said. A great nation does not leave the work of revolution half-done.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.
Photo: President Obama speaks at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, on Saturday, March 7, 2015. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)