As the United States celebrates the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we take a look at some of the gains and losses of the civil rights movement since the holiday’s enactment. America elected its first black president in 2008, but the assailment of unarmed blacks, and efforts to repeal voting rights and affirmative action, show that Barack Obama’s election may have been a pyrrhic victory. The journey continues.
In her 1972 award-winning essay, “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” Alice Walker said it best: “Because we live, it [the civil rights movement] can never die.”
Gain: A Salute to Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed as a federal holiday, though President Ronald Reagan initially signed a bill to create the holiday in 1983. All 50 states didn’t observe the holiday until 2000, when South Carolina finally recognized the holiday. Three states—Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas—also celebrate the birth of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the very same day.
Loss: Cast Your Vote … or Not
Enacted in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was one of the most important achievements of the civil rights movement. But in the infamous Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a key provision that had given the act its true heft. Since then, several states have passed—or are attempting to pass—laws that restrict access to the ballot box, especially for people of color.
Gain: Black Faces in High Places
America elected its first black president in 2008, but the United States has seen many “firsts” when it comes to high-ranking black officials. Loretta Lynch, Eric Holder, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas have all become household names. Despite their presence in federal-government posts, systemic racism has persisted and is rampant in the United States. Our only hope is that through effective policy, the next wave of black politicians uphold and reinforce civil rights efforts of the past.
Loss: Attacks on Unarmed People of Color
“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates in his award-winning book, Between the World and Me. Sadly, the ongoing cases of unarmed blacks being killed or assaulted by police (or wannabe police, in the case of George Zimmerman) prove Coates’ statement to be true. In the past 30 years, the names of victims have become household names for the wrong reasons: Rodney King, Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, and, more recently, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland.
Gain: The Rise of Black Lives Matter
Many have called the Black Lives Matter movement the new civil rights movement. It initially emerged on social media after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin and acquitted of manslaughter. In an interview with The Guardian, Alicia Garza, one of the BLM founders, said that she began the movement as “a call to action.” But Black Lives Matter really kicked into high gear after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. As the list of unarmed blacks killed at the hands of police continues to grow, Black Lives Matter (and its now 28 chapters) will continue to mobilize through protest and social media.
Loss: Affirmative Action Under Fire
Affirmative action has been a point of contention since President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order to “take affirmative action” in 1961.
The current Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas is just the latest effort to halt attempts that level the academic playing field. In that case, Abigail Fisher says that she was denied admission to the University of Texas because less qualified applicants were admitted ahead of her because of their race (never mind that she didn’t have the grades to get into the university in the first place).
Gain: The Supreme Court Stands With Obamacare
King once said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” With these same ideals, President Obama brought forth the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare), which Congress passed in 2010. This was a major accomplishment, taking more than a year of debates before passage. Subsequently, opponents have attempted to abolish Obamacare on many occasions.
But in June 2015, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the ACA’s premium subsidies. This was the second time in three years that the Supreme Court upheld the act.
Gain: LGBT Service Members in the Military
In a 2010 speech, Obama resolved to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” saying, “This year I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” The president signed legislation in December 2010, and Congress went on to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011. Now lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service members can serve openly in the military.
Loss: Transgender People of Color Under Siege
In 2015 at least 21 transgender people—most of them people of color—were killed in the United States, the highest homicide rate on record. And even though Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo at the end of his tenure informing the Department of Justice that discrimination against transgender people is now covered under the sexual-discrimination provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s clear that more work is still needed to protect transgender people.
Gain: Love Conquers All
In a groundbreaking decision, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. Though this ruling affirms that any state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, folks like Rowan County, Ky., Clerk Kim Davis have chosen to ignore the ruling.
Felice León is multimedia editor at The Root.