By Andrea Young
ACLU of Georgia
On Monday January 21st, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. People from all over the country participated in parades and marches, while others carried out acts of service to fight against various social problems plaguing different communities. Dr. King’s speeches and the example he set during his lifetime have been used throughout the world as inspiration for social change. Dr. King’s movement for social change relied on the foundations of American democracy-- the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
As we enter the second week of the 2019 legislative session in Georgia, I want to reflect on King’s 1963 “A Letter from Birmingham Jail.” His famous line “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is a call to community action and civil disobedience. Just as compelling is his masterful meditation on the responsibility of the law.
On April 16th1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for “parading without a permit” during a non-violent demonstration against segregation. White religious leaders in Birmingham criticized Dr. King for not trusting the process of the law to end racial segregation. Many felt Dr. King was failing to give the law enough time to correct America’s issues. In fact, some people wanted him to stop participating in peaceful protests because of the violence these non-violent actions elicited from racist citizens, many of whom were unwilling to change.
King didn’t back down while in jail nor did he allow his critics to break his will to fight. In fact, he responded with “any law that uplifts human personality is just, [while] any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” The lesson here is that the law is not and has never been neutral. King knew that the laws of the United States would not just magically change. It is everyday people that put the pressure on the government to enact social change. It was activists in countless local movements across the country, culminating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Laws have been, and still are, used to systematically oppress and deny rights to minorities, immigrants, women, and the LGBTQI community. Just this week, the Supreme Court allowed President Trump’s partial ban on transgender people serving in the military to go into effect while the ban is being challenged in the lower courts. More recently, a Presidential Executive Order was applied to separate children from their parents at the nation’s southern border. And it seems every few years, throughout the country, legislatures have passed or attempted to pass laws to limit voters’ rights and a woman’s right to control her own body.
Even with these constant assaults on our civil liberties, people are told to let the law run its course so that justice can somehow mystically prevail. However, justice is never guaranteed when the law is flawed. Therefore, we must side with King’s words at the March on Washington that, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt...Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy...Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.”
As the Executive Director of the ACLU of Georgia, those words are with me everyday as we fight to protect all of our civil liberties in communities, in the courtroom, and in the legislature.
During this 2019 legislative session, I urge our members to let their voices be heard. There are several ways we need your involvement. On January 23rd, please join us at the ACLU office in Atlanta for “Know Your Rights” training and learn about pending legislative actions that affect your life and your community. Throughout February and March, we will host several citizen lobby days at the State Capitol to discuss a non-partisan redistricting measure to protect the rights of voters, access to medical marijuana, and the Dignity for Incarcerated Women bill.
While change does not happen overnight, we will carry the spirit of King’s activism and his belief that the law can be transformative, if transformed with and by the will of the people. Please join us in the fight to protect and expand our civil liberties.