In the midst of current retrenchments on voting rights, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech provides an important opportunity to consider whether his “dream” has been realized. Or, is it now, in the words of the famous poet Langston Hughes, a “dream deferred.”
In that speech and many others, King lays out a powerful vision of democracy “deeply rooted in the American dream . . . ‘that all [persons] are created equal.’” King also articulated a three-pronged vision for American democracy — inclusive, substantive and transformative — throughout his struggle for civil rights.
The promise held in King’s dream is to wake up one day to its reality — not to slumber while discrimination marches on. The immediate step we can take is to reverse the continuing assault on voting rights and expand participation in our democracy. Rehabilitating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, following the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down one of the law’s most important provisions, should be at the top of this agenda.
In June the Supreme Court dealt a death blow to the act’s requirement that the federal government pre-approve all election changes in specific districts or states with a history of racial discrimination in voting. No longer bound by this federal oversight, several jurisdictions with substantial records of discrimination rapidly began enacting laws that will undermine minority voters’ ability to vote.
King envisioned that all Americans, including racial minorities, would not only have unfettered access to vote, but, more important, have an urgent reason to go to the polls. “We cannot be satisfied,” King said, “as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”