On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, local leaders gathered virtually to remember the work of the late civil rights leader and to amplify his message at a time when dozens of states are enacting laws making it harder for individuals to vote and Congress struggles to pass a series of bills that would bolster voting rights.
The Schenectady County Human Rights Commission hosted its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance ceremony on Sunday, honoring the life and legacy of King, which culminated in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that barred discrimination and ensured all Americans the right to vote, regardless of race.
Arthur Butler, executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, said he is committed to ensuring the values taught by King are achieved at a time when it feels like the country is moving backwards.
Butler pointed to hundreds of voter suppression bills that have either been enacted or are making their way through state legislatures, which he said threaten to undermine the work of civil rights leaders like King nearly 60 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed.
“In state after state, we find legislation that would unravel the work, the sacrifices, those things that my mother and father and many of your parents and grandparents worked hard to achieve,” he said. “It is an honor to go to the ballot and cast a vote. Something I do not take lightly because it was instilled in me the importance of the vote.”
Butler was joined by local, state and federal leaders during the more than 90-minute ceremony, which was livestreamed via YouTube due to the pandemic, and carried the theme of promise and opportunity.
Cheryl Gooch, vice president for Academic Affairs at SUNY Schenectady, was the keynote speaker.
She encouraged the dozens watching the stream to adopt King’s sense of patriotism and laid out the history of how Black Americans have continually fought for their rights since the Emancipation Proclamation, which she said has led to greater opportunities and a better country for all.
“Dr. King embodied an enduring patriotism, which we can and should embrace, especially in this social and political climate,” she said.
The event featured several musical performances recorded by SUNY Schenectady students, as well as short clips outlining struggles still faced by Black Americans today.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said the country is at an “inflection point,” and that it’s crucial that Congress take action to protect voting rights before the work of King is unraveled.
Tonko said hundreds of voter suppression bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country last year and are likely to continue this year unless Congress intervenes. He compared the bills to a new form of Jim Crow.
“Experts predict that this wave of voter suppression, of suffocation and election sabotage, akin to a new era of Jim Crow, will intensify in this calendar year of 2022,” he said. “With partisan gerrymandering on the way and midterms approaching, the imperative to get this done grows greater with each day.”
For weeks, Congress has struggled to pass a series of voting bills, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that would expand voting rights and restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that have since been gutted.
But Senate Republicans have threatened to block the measures, which have already passed the House of Representatives.
President Joe Biden last week urged Senate Democrats to find a way to approve the legislation, including eliminating the filibuster, a decadeslong tradition that allows the minority party to block legislation that doesn’t have 60 votes. The 100-member Senate is currently split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
Tonko criticized Republicans for failing to protect voting rights, adding history will remember their position.
“Our democracy is at stake. The need to enact democracy reform now could not be any more urgent,” he said.
Still, those who spoke said they were determined to carry out the work of King and that the civil rights movement he helped to lead has made positive changes.
William Rivas, founder of COCOA House, a Schenectady-based nonprofit that provides education and mentorship to city youth, pointed to the Schenectady City Council as proof of progress.
Marion Porterfield was recently elected council president, becoming the first Black woman to hold the role. And the seven-member body is the most racially diverse in the city’s history, which Rivas called an accurate representation of the city as a whole.
Rivas said that work still needs to be done, but King continues to serve as an inspiration.
“When I think about Dr. King and his work and I give myself an opportunity to reflect, I look no further than my own community and the monumental changes we’ve been a part of,” Rivas said. “And I think to myself, we may not have changed everything, but I am extremely proud to be part of this journey.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.