Preserving King's legacy in Florida

Voting rights: Reform in Florida must be seen as part of the continuing struggle for civil rights.

January 15, 2001

ON THIS SOLEMN day of remembrance, the words of Martin Luther King Jr. will be heard again in churches, at marches and at other ceremonies.

Few men inspired more revolutionary action, more courageous demand for human rights and for the dignity of humankind. Few overcame such implacable enemies.

King made us understand that equal protection under the law was everyone's concern -- especially in a nation like ours, one based on the power and sanctity of a single vote and on the accountability of those who are elected.

Nothing could make the point more clearly today than the recent fiasco in Florida.

The sheer number of irregularities in the Nov. 7 presidential balloting there suggests a formidable and disturbing assault on voting rights. Minority voters found themselves as far from the ballot box on Election Day as they were in the deepest, most blatantly racist, South.

As if poll taxes and rules about reading and understanding the Constitution were still in force, every conceivable pretext was employed to deny the vote to properly registered Americans -- if widespread allegations are true.

Despite a record number of minority registrants, polling places in black neighborhoods were strangely unprepared, machinery was left outdated (even as it was modernized in other areas) and all of this was done with a police presence that raises disturbing questions. A thorough investigation is critically important.

But so is support for that investigation from people of good faith and moral courage. The nation, including both major political parties and many voters, has paid too little attention to the toll on minority voting rights in Florida. It's almost as if many people believe this is a "black problem," to be addressed only by African-Americans, if at all.

Here, King's words are useful: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," he said in his famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

We must know that this observation challenges us today as sharply and urgently as when it was written in April 1963.

We remain in awe of King's words, humbled by the recollection of his devotion -- and surely renewed in our dedication to preserve and extend the progress he inspired.

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