By Senator Harry M. Reid
I grew up in Searchlight, Nevada – a tiny, remote mining town in the Southern tip of the state. Searchlight sits in the middle of the desert, and in the 1950s, was about as far as you could get from the front lines of the struggle for Civil Rights. While all of us were aware that the seeds of change were being planted in America, cities like Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma seemed half a world away.
My first impressions of the civil rights movement came from the world of sports. There was not much to do in Searchlight, as we did not have televisions, parks or movie theatres. I did, however, have a radio, and in the 1950s, I listened regularly to the “Baseball Game of the Week.” It was this broadcast that introduced me to Jackie Robinson. Jackie became a hero of mine and opened my eyes to other heroes that followed, including Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King.
This week, all across America we will honor Martin Luther King’s legacy. There will be renditions of his speeches, community service projects and of course, talk of Dr. King’s great dream of an America where we work together for the betterment of all and love one another regardless of race, religion or class.
Dr. King left us in 1968, but his dream has endured. Over the years, we have made great progress towards achieving his vision of equality for all. However, what troubles me today is that our progress seems to have stalled. We have gone from making progress for all Americans to making progress for just a few.
Look at what has happened in our political process.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Dr. King led marches and demonstrations in support of equal voting rights, and due in large part to his vision and leadership, millions of Americans were brought into the political process with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark legislation guaranteed equality in our political system, but today it is being undermined by some who want to exploit the system for their own partisan gain.
In one case, the Georgia legislature passed a law requiring voters to present state issued photo identification before voting. Career attorneys at the Department of Justice found this law violated the Voting Rights Act, but these concerns were brushed aside by political appointees at the Department of Justice. It took a federal court to strike down the law and overturn the wishes of a partisan few.
In another case, the Texas legislature, with the aid of former House Republican Leader Tom Delay, redrew congressional districts in a way that diluted the voting strength of African American and Latino Americans. Once again, career attorneys at the Department of Justice warned that the plan violated the rights of minority voters, and once again, presidential appointees at the Department of Justice brushed aside their concerns.
After he fought so hard for equal voting rights, I find it difficult to believe Dr. King would find anything honest to say about the partisan decisions at the Department of Justice. It is a sign of how corrupt Washington, DC, has become that one party’s political interests are taking precedence over the rights of millions of Americans.
Sadly, it is not just at the Department of Justice where we have leaders putting politics before progress. It is happening across the nation’s capital, and from the economy to health care, this lack of honest leadership is holding America back.
We can see it in our budget, which puts tax breaks for special interests ahead of health care, education and other assistance for middle-class families.
We can see it on our Gulf Coast, where four months after Hurricane Katrina the health care, housing and financial needs of thousands of families still need to be addressed.
And we can see it in the emerging debate about creating a fair and realistic immigration system. In this debate, we have leaders who are trying to achieve political success by dividing Americans by brown, black and white, instead of drawing us together based on the values in which we all believe.
I believe America can do better.
We can have a budget that takes care of the most vulnerable among us. We can have a health care system that is affordable and accessible to all Americans. We can live in the country of Dr. King’s dream. All it takes is a commitment to work together and to put progress, not politics, first.
Dr. King urged us to sit together at God’s table of humanity and focus on the differences that make us stronger, not the differences that tear us apart. On his birthday, we need to renew ourselves to that focus in America, because together, there is no limit to how far we can go.