Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is Dr. King's achievement at risk?

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
  • The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 43 years ago Monday
  • He was in Memphis to campaign for the rights of black workers
  • Donna Brazile says King's achievements on voting rights are endangered
  • She says states are adopting measures that could suppress votes

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee, a nationally syndicated columnist and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000 and wrote "Cooking With Grease."

(CNN) -- On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee, to stand in solidarity with sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 and the wider community they inspired.

The city of Memphis had refused to recognize the union, paid its black workers less than whites, and always saved the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs for African-Americans. The day following his arrival, April 4, 1968, King was assassinated.

During his life, King had witnessed dramatic change: brave Americans demonstrating nonviolently for equality, a Supreme Court recognizing that separate is not equal justice under law, and a federal government courageously passing the Voting Rights Act, despite its political consequences, because it was the right thing to do.

Forty-three years later, April 4th gives us occasion to reflect on King's life and legacy -- and ask ourselves how well we are carrying on his vision of social, political and economic justice for all Americans. The State of Black America, a report by the National Urban League, points to our successes as well as our failures, and it lays out a path toward a more inclusive economy. Its 12-point plan includes: restoring the Summer Youth Jobs Program, creating 100 Urban Jobs Academies, creating Green Empowerment Zones and expanding small-business lending.

The climb to equality is always difficult, but in 2011, the budget fights on Capitol Hill and elsewhere are making the journey downright treacherous.

Last year, Republicans campaigned on a promise to push our nation over the summit with a righteous war on the national debt and a singular focus on job creation. Instead, Republicans in Washington and state houses across the country have begun an attack on American freedoms, with assaults on organized labor and the right to vote.

In King's time, there were poll taxes and literacy tests. Now, restrictive photo ID bills are the avant-garde method of suppressing the vote. Texas Gov. Rick Perry even fast-tracked photo ID law as "emergency" legislation. He did that because Texas has to hurry to keep up with the Midwest.

Not to be outdone by their brethren in Wisconsin or Texas, Ohio Republicans are pushing through a controversial photo ID bill without significant debate. Because, as election law expert Daniel Tokaji wrote, there is an "utter lack of evidence that the new ID bill would address any real problem," Ohio Republicans are falling back on trickery to get their bill passed: ramming it through while the rest of the state focuses on the fight over collective bargaining.

But then, Ohio Republicans know more about diversion, sneak attacks and fuzzy math than any others (including in Florida). It's hard to forget 2004: the year African-American voters were subjected to "massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies," according to a report by congressional Democrats that said then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell was responsible for many of the irregularities.

The litany of assaults, all camouflaged with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, goes from state to state to state: New Hampshire Republicans (and their Tea Party allies) tried to disenfranchise the state's college students. In Colorado, Missouri and Arizona, Republicans support onerous "proof-of-citizenship" bills that erect barriers to keep Hispanic voters at home on election day.

In Florida, where the purge of many African-American voters before the 2000 election is still fresh in my mind, citizens who have completed felony sentences must now wait at least five years before they can vote. In other words, once you've served your time, you still have to serve your time.

Worse still, Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott is using legal trickery to undercut the Voting Rights Act. Rather than comply with his legal obligation to send this policy and two redistricting reforms to the Justice Department for preclearance, he's acting like a one-man election judge, jury and poll watcher.

These Republican priorities are not simply a collection of bad policies. They are an attempt to permanently change our great country, redefining American values to something unrecognizable in the 43 years since the world lost its greatest voice for civil, political and economic rights.

The day before his assassination, King proclaimed that though hard days were ahead, he had been to the mountaintop and he had seen the Promised Land. He said that he might not get there with us, but we, as a nation, would reach the other side together. King's vision is for all of us; no one person or party has license over it. But as state leaders around the country are busting unions, making it more difficult for people of color to vote and intentionally subverting the Voting Rights Act, I can feel my feet slipping on the ground beneath and I can feel our country falling back.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.