2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration
King County Executive Dow Constantine
Jan. 15, 2015
Thank you, all, for joining us today as we honor the life, the work, and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today, we reflect upon the inequality in our not-so-distant past, and take joy in the progress we’ve made and the challenges that still await us. Last year at this time, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. This year marks the golden anniversary of another piece of landmark legislation: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Together, these two bills were the most successful uses of federal law to enforce the promise in our Constitution of equal treatment for all people. Until then, laws in many states were designed to deny equality and protect segregation in their daily lives and in their institutions.
The Civil Rights Act used federal preemption by making equal rights “the law of the land.” It took aim at local laws and rules designed to deny people of their right to vote. It took aim at the pervasive problem of discrimination in public accommodations. And it provided a legal footing for the subjects of discrimination to petition for the redress of grievances in federal court.
It took almost a century for these two laws to finally implement rights that were guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to Constitution. And just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court usurped the power of Congress and gutted the Voting Rights Act on the unproven claim that barriers to voting no longer exist in our society.
So the struggle is long—and ongoing.
As the chief executive of the county which takes its name from Dr. King, I have made equity and social justice a central tenet of our work. My core commitment is to create the conditions where every person can have a fair shot at success—irrespective of race or wealth or the neighborhood in which they live.
We study the inequities within our communities as a first step toward eliminating them. How is it that here in King County, African Americans have household incomes that are, on average, half that of whites? How is it that African Americans here are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites, and to have life expectancies that are, on average, five years shorter than those enjoyed by whites?
In King County, we have enshrined our vision for an equitable government into law through adoption of the “fair and just” principle in our Strategic Plan. Simply put, we seek to consciously and daily integrate the values of equity and social justice into our every action as a government in service to the people—every decision, every policy, every practice—whether one drives a bus, administers an election, or wears a uniform.
In just the last few months, events in Ferguson, in New York City, and in Cleveland have generated outrage and renewed a demand for equality, across the nation and here in King County. We’re confronted with the nature of what still exists in America—the persistent, lingering, and corrosive effects of a hundred years of hypocrisy.
In answer to the challenge that “Black Lives Matter,” to the cry of “I Can’t Breathe,” Dr. King reminds us of his dream of an America that can rise up to fully and consistently live out its founding ideals.
The Constitution the Founders wrote was the best they could at the time, and not every idea was hatched fully formed. We are responsible for creating the ideals to which we aspire. We need to live up to those ideals, and more than that we need to continually renew and expand that vision.
It is up to every generation to drive this nation closer to what it truly can be.
As an employee of Martin Luther King County, no matter what it says in your job description, let us all pledge to participate in the collective effort to create the long-term, systemic changes our nation needs to fulfill its destiny. Let us create true justice and genuine opportunity. Let us create the environment where each person can fulfill his or her innate potential—where the human spirit can fully flourish.
The struggle is long, and it is ongoing.