Where Are the Democrats as the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is Under Attack?

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley take the stage in Las Vegas Oct. 13, 2015, for a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley take the stage in Las Vegas Oct. 13, 2015, for a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

As the Democratic presidential candidates debate this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, everything King and the civil rights movement fought for is at risk. An angry, xenophobic, race-based backlash to the inclusion and empowerment of people of color is ripping through the fabric of American society, but the candidates fail to rise to the occasion. Sunday’s debate is the perfect time for them to prove they are truly worthy of the enthusiastic support of King’s coalition by standing up for justice, equality and social progress.


This is not the first time America has witnessed such a backlash. Ferocious, reactionary forces fought back against the changing economic, political and social order after the Civil War. By 1877, control of the South was returned to the slave owners, legalized segregation was put in place and economic exploitation continued apace.

In many ways, the civil rights movement was a less violent extension of the Civil War. Thanks to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights and Immigration and Nationality acts, the “Whites Only” signs were taken down not just from drinking fountains but also from voting booths and immigration portals. As a result, the composition of America changed dramatically. People of color soared from 12 percent of the country’s population at the time of King’s death in 1968 to 38 percent today (numbers large enough to elect and re-elect the country’s first black president).

The backlash to the 1960s civil rights movement meant federal foot-dragging on enforcing the Voting Rights Act, resistance to finally allowing people of color to immigrate to America, and Richard Nixon’s increased call for “law and order.” The result was a return to racial gerrymandering, gutting social programs, excessively punitive criminal-justice policies and putting more police in the streets in response to people protesting injustice and inequality.

After the election of the first black president, legalization of gay marriage and a huge step toward universal health care, Republican presidential candidates have been unapologetic about rolling back nearly all the progress toward equality made in the past 50 years. Plans to undermine the Voting Rights Act, repeal marriage equality, restrict a woman’s right to choose, and round up and ship out undocumented immigrants have been met with loud cheers and rising poll numbers.  

Despite this urgency, Democratic candidates have not spoken up with the kinds of policies, programs and leadership demanded by these challenges.

King wrote that frustrated activists of his era turned to “black power” because they had seen with their “own eyes the most brutal white violence against Negroes and … and seen it go unpunished.” Today, the killings—and exonerations of the killers—of unarmed African Americans have led to the demand that “Black lives matter.” Politicians are learning the language to sympathize with this frustration, but are they willing to address it with deeds and not just words?


Do black lives matter enough for the candidates to call for an end to secretive grand juries, which cloak judicial processes that usually absolve the people responsible for killing unarmed black people? Are Democrats willing to make investments to recruit, train and run community-based candidates for district attorney who act more like Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby and less like Cleveland’s Tim McGinty?

Yet, criminal-justice reform won’t be enough. The struggle to abolish poverty is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. King, who was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign at the time of his murder, wrote that “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor. … Each [program] seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else. I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly.”


All the current candidates decry income inequality, yet none offers solutions to outright eliminate poverty. Think tanks calculate the cost of eliminating poverty at $275 billion. America could raise nearly twice that amount of money just by imposing a 2 percent wealth tax on the top 1 percent of Americans—those who have more than $13 million in assets—a small price to pay to eliminate poverty.

Democratic politicians typically run from social, economic and racial-justice issues out of caution and a fear of electoral consequences. But perhaps King’s greatest legacy is that the fruits of his labor have created the conditions under which exactly these kinds of social-justice policies can be pursued without fear. Because people of color now make up such a large percentage of the electorate, far greater political change is possible than ever before.  Conversely, failure to boldly champion such changes runs the risk of alienating these constituencies and depressing voter turnout to levels that might result in conservative victories.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Democratic candidates would do well to heed these words from King:

Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency asks the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?

But, conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.


This is no time for cowardice or calculation. It’s a time to do what is right. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is time for candidates to debate ending poverty, injustice and discrimination.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.


Steve Phillips is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, due out from New Press on Feb. 2, 2016.