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More work to do 50 years later

4/6/2018, 12:13 p.m.
The 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination comes amid a fierce struggle for the soul of America. We ...

Jesse Jackson Sr.

The 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination comes amid a fierce struggle for the soul of America. We will celebrate the progress that has been made since Dr. King was taken from us in 1968, and decry the agenda that is still unfinished.

But we cannot ignore the systematic effort — from the highest offices of government — to roll back his legacy, to make America more separate and unequal, to reverse the progress of the last years.

From the White House and across the cabinets of the federal government, civil rights are being systematically undermined.

President Trump has set the tone personally, slandering immigrants and seeking to ban Muslims, while noting there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville. He pardoned former Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, allowing him to avoid accountability for racially profiling Latinos. He terminated the Obama program that protected the DACA children, and sabotaged every bipartisan effort to protect these children who know no other country than the United States. He called for NFL players protesting against discrimination to be fired, while slurring “s–hole countries” in Africa.

In different departments, President Trump’s appointees have moved relentlessly to roll back enforcement of civil rights, with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions leading the way.

Department of Justice lawyers reversed their position on voting rights cases, like that in Texas, essentially opening the door for voter suppression. Mr. Sessions forced a review of Obama-era consent decrees with police departments, even as President Trump praised brutal police tactics. He drastically limited the use of court-enforced consent decrees themselves, eviscerating the primary instrument of civil rights enforcement.

Mr. Sessions also has declared that civil rights laws protecting against workplace discrimination do not apply to transgender workers.

President Trump’s education secretary, billionaire Betsy DeVos, disemboweled the department’s Office for Civil Rights and pushed to move public funds to support voucher programs for private schools, while calling for deep cuts in the staff and budget of the U.S. Department of Education.

Dr. Ben Carson, his secretary of housing and urban development, has gutted enforcement of civil rights and fair housing laws at the very moment the department must disburse billions in disaster recovery Community Block Grants that could help reverse past wrongs. Dr. Carson even pushed to strike the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from HUD’s mission statement.

The president has slashed taxes on the wealthy and corporations while targeting basic programs for the vulnerable — from food stamps to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid — for deep cuts. He sought to repeal Obamacare, which would have deprived millions of health care. This is a direct and sustained assault on Dr. King’s legacy.

Dr. King fought for integration against discrimination. He marched for equal opportunity against entrenched inequality. He championed nonviolence against violence. He campaigned for voting rights, knowing that democracy offered the best chance for change. He called for an end to the war in Vietnam, realizing that the bombs being dropped on Vietnam were landing in the poor neighborhoods of four cities.

At the end of his life, he was organizing a broad coalition of poor people, across lines of race, religion and region, to march on Washington to demand basic economic rights.

Dr. King taught us that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” He knew the progress that the Civil Rights Movement was making would generate a fierce reaction. He called on us to “re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world.”

We have work to do.

The writer is the founder and national president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.