For this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in the fiftieth anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act and the Selma to Montgomery March, it is hard not to draw comparisons between those days and ours.
The Selma March was partly inspired by the death Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed young black man, killed by an Alabama trooper after marching with his mother and grandfather in an earlier demonstration. King’s comments at Jackson’s funeral a few days before the Selma march still resonate today. Jackson, he said, had been "murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law." Today people all over the nation are again taking to the streets in response to the lawless police killings of black men and boys and the failure to criminally prosecute those who killed them. “Black Lives Matter” and “Racism kills” are slogans chanted and written on placards and pins as people march and protest the racism displayed in the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice.
The increased rate at which blacks are killed by police compared to whites in America is a matter of both historical and public health record. Evidence that racism drives health inequity among historically underserved populations is equally abundant. Indeed, Eric Garner may not have died from the police choke-hold if his health had not already been undermined by diseases that disproportionately sicken poor and minority people: asthma, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In Tamir Rice’s case, the failure of the police to provide first aid to the boy they had shot is as shocking as the shooting of a 12 year old with a pellet gun (in an open-carry state) in the first place. Whether it is inequity in police brutality and criminal sentencing or decreased access to first aid, opportunity, education and health care, it is undeniable that racism undermines health.
At the end of the Selma March, Dr. King rallied people to pursue the realization of the American dream. He exhorted people to
“march on the ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena;”
“march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat;”
“march on segregated housing until every ghetto or social and economic depression dissolves;”
and to “march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past, and Negroes and whites study side-by-side in the socially-healing context of the classroom.”
If we review this litany of hope fifty years on, it seems that the arc of justice is longer and less intensely curved than we might have hoped.
Voting: The Selma March, was first and foremost a demonstration in support of federal legislation to overturn laws that made it virtually impossible for African-Americans to vote in the South. The Supreme Court in 2013 effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 releasing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. Another ruling, the 2010 Citizen’s United decision placed campaign contributions into the category of speech, making it more difficult to regulate campaign financing. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law this month reveals that spending on political campaigns by outside groups of very rich, unidentified contributors doubled in the 2014 Senate elections. Pharmaceutical and healthcare lobbyists also spent more than any other sector to influence legislation and contributed heavily to political campaigns as well.
Poverty: A recent Pew Research Center study shows that income inequality is increasing and is the widest on record. America’s upper-income families have a median net worth about 70 times that of the country’s lower-income families. This wealth gap also tracks along racial and ethnic lines. According to Oxfam, in 2014, the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth. The other 52% of wealth was owned by the remaining 99% of adults. Even this 52% of wealth owned by the bottom 99% of adults is disproportionately distributed: only 5.5% of global wealth is shared 80% of people in the world.
Food Access: Food insecurity has increased since the Great Recession and held steady since then. American children and parents, especially poor, African American and Latino children are going hungry. A staggering 21% of people in Arkansas were rated as food insecure by the USDA from 2011-2013.
Housing: Nor are our neighborhoods equally safe and prosperous. Comparing life expectancy between neighborhoods is a particularly stark way of realizing how far we are from King’s vision. Life expectancy for a baby born in the New Orleans French Quarter, for example, is about 25 years longer than for a baby born just a few miles away. Our Supreme Court is also now considering a challenge to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that made racial discrimination in housing illegal.
Eradication of Jim Crow laws in the South improved premature mortality rates for black Americans in the South, but did not abolish them. Black Americans continue to have a two-fold higher risk of premature death than do white Americans.
Education: Educational opportunity is far from Dr. King’s socially-healing vision. Indeed, a report from the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reveals racial inequality in the nation’s educational system in many aspects of school life: in school discipline, early learning, college readiness and teacher equity.
Before the Selma to Montgomery March, the organizers put out a call to people of all races and faiths to join the protest. People flocked to Selma from all over the nation to join the march and the movement. In his address at the end of the march, Martin Luther King, Jr. promised that it would be “not long” before the inequities of his day were abolished. But it has been too long and it is clear that it is time once again to draw inspiration from Selma’s legacy and link arms and march forward in every way we can, through research, clinical care, advocacy and political action to help bend the arc of history toward justice. It won’t happen without us.