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Reprinted with permission from Uexpress.

 

It’s been more than half a century since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — 51 years since he was shot dead standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In this era of resurgent bigotry, of hateful rhetoric emanating from the White House, of violent protests by white supremacists, it has become fashionable to say that nothing has changed since then.

But that is simply not true. As the nation celebrates King’s birthday, we owe it to his memory to acknowledge just how much has changed. In the decades since his death, the United States has made momentous strides toward living up to its creed of justice and equality for all.

Oh, King would recognize the backlash that fueled the rise of President Donald J. Trump. Every period of great racial progress has been followed by a period of retrogression, by a resurgence of backward-looking bigotry and hate. The rise of Trumpism is another such manifestation.

Yet, the continued pace of progress cannot be denied. That’s what has so upset bigots such as U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who looks around and sees a nation that no longer gives him an automatic pass to power. Instead, the midterm elections gave congressional seats to more women — and more women of color — than ever before, the vast majority of them Democrats. Among those are the first two Muslim women and the first two Native American women ever to serve.

In Harris County, Texas, meanwhile, 19 black women — calling themselves “Black Girl Magic” — took seats on the bench. Given that the criminal justice system is one of the last bastions of explicit bigotry, the rise of black and brown judges and prosecutors is a sign that institutional racism in the court system may finally be ameliorated.

Those political victories were propelled, obviously, by the brigades of courageous activists who literally put their lives on the line for the right to vote during King’s day. But it’s also true that dramatic changes in popular culture helped pave the way for the ascent of black and brown Americans to positions of power — not only in politics, but also in business, in law, in the academy. Once Hollywood began to portray black actors in the Oval Office, black women on the bench and black men in surgeons’ garb, many white Americans became more comfortable with that diversity in real life.

And Hollywood has also begun to embrace diversity in its studio suites, where the important decisions are made. Black writers and directors have brought stories to life that simply would not have been told 50 years ago — or even 20 years ago. The commercial success of “Black Panther” will undoubtedly lead to many more films that are written for and about black folk.

None of that is meant to downplay the very real racism in our midst or to suggest that Trump and his minions are not doing significant harm to the nation’s civic fabric. The president has given aid and comfort to bigots; it’s no coincidence that reports of hate crimes have spiked during his tenure.

Nor does evidence of very real progress lessen the damage of the institutional racism that has never been stamped out. Black families still have a fraction of the net worth of white families: For every $100 in white-family wealth, black families hold about $5.04, according to The New York Times. Black homebuyers and would-be entrepreneurs still face significant barriers to credit.

Mass incarceration has worsened the plight of many black families since King’s death. Though African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the U.S. population, they constituted 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And police brutality continues unabated as white police officers rarely face sanctions for killing unarmed black men.

Those hard facts emphasize the long road ahead. We can gather strength for that journey by taking time to acknowledge how far we’ve come.

 

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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Former president Donald Trump

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(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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