Constitutional lawyer speaks of obstacles to the promise of democracy laid out by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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In this 1960 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. The civil rights leader had carried the banner for the causes of social justice — organizing protests, leading marches and making powerful speeches exposing the scourges of segregation, poverty and racism

In this 1960 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. (AP File Photo)

On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged Americans to “make real the promises of democracy” in his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The speech and the march, televised to millions, marked a turning point in the civil rights movement by calling for equality and freedom, and an end to racism in the United States.

WHYY and NewCORE present this year’s “Conversations of King,” a free virtual event that will stream live on WHYY News’ Facebook page Monday at 1 p.m.

Participants will reflect on Dr. King’s vision for democracy and lay out steps citizens and governments must take to safeguard it.

“Morning Edition” host Jennifer Lynn spoke with Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, one of Monday’s panelists.

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Browne-Marshall is a writer, civil rights attorney, and professor of Constitutional Law. She’s authored three books, including “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and is the host of WHYY’s “Your Democracy,” an animated series for children and teachers.

Editors note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity. 


Since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech 60 years ago, and since the words of Abraham Lincoln in the “Emancipation Proclamation” speech 100 years before King’s words were delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you say our country is having a segregated democracy, still. So what does democracy mean for white people and what does it mean for Black people and other people of color today? 

Browne-Marshall: Democracy, it appears to me, means that white Americans enjoy full freedoms. Freedom to do what they want to do, and sometimes freedoms go well beyond what the law says. While African Americans and some other people of color are still wrestling with basic voting rights, education of their children, and the attempt to live in certain neighborhoods without being harassed by police or neighbors. Being able to live as Black people – that’s so fundamental in this democracy that claims to be a light on the shining hill. I think it’s really a segregated democracy, and it’s still segregated by race.

Lack of equity exists in nearly every avenue of life in America, you know: in jobs, banking, housing, policing, transit, you name it. But there are groups and individuals fighting to change that, as there have been for decades. As a constitutional lawyer, what do you observe about that good fight today? 

Well, in my book, “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 the Present,” I look at laws, race based laws, and their obstacles, as well as the fight to overcome those laws. And I see very similar things,  people of goodwill are siding with those who are oppressed. The oppressed fight their own fight. There’s one obstacle after another, and then it morphs into something else. So there’s very similar circumstances of the George Floyd murder and those that were murdered in the 1600s, the 1700s, the 1800s, this is an ongoing American problem. That’s because it’s an ongoing failure to provide a democracy for all people here.

So often we’re told the United States’ is the freest nation, but history has shown us otherwise. On the path toward freedom and democracy for everyone, Black Americans have been central. And we’ve seen this with each step toward civil rights, each step toward movements formed in the name of justice. “The freest nation.” It feels good. It looks good on paper, but it is still not really what we’re dealing with. 

But who says this is the freest nation? When most Americans don’t travel to other countries, except possibly to the islands for a vacation, they don’t study our own Constitution to know what the promises are for all people, to see that there are other countries where people are living in freedom and democracy. And yet without having any type of self-examination, we are going to be a country that’s always following origin stories and myths, as opposed to truth and justice for all.

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Inequity and injustice have been amplified in conversation today since the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans who died at the hands of police and use of force against them. Injustice amplified in stories of attempts of voter suppression and gerrymandering that is happening in some communities. We have these conversations when we talk about challenges of fair elections. It is amplified, but it’s an important amplification in order to deal with it. This is our way of dealing with it, right? By talking about it, by having civic engagement, to inform people, to debate the condition of democracy. 

I think this is the closest time in American history in which white Americans, perhaps Democrats, liberals, progressives – whatever you may call people who are looking forward to the future of this country as a sisterhood and brotherhood of all, have found themselves actually feeling like they’re the oppressed. There are so many white people who are liberals right now looking at their country, wondering how they could be treated this unfairly in their own country. Why are they fearful of their own government? Now that it has been taken over by conservatives. And the Supreme Court, taken over by conservatives. You have a glimpse into what African Americans have been living with for generations. In order for us to have civic engagement, it means that we as a nation have to own our history, learn from it and go forward, or there’s no real engagement. It will always be groups of people demanding, protesting, begging to be heard, and others only listening halfheartedly when their own interests are at stake.

Voices are behind change. Whose voices are not being heard and should be heard? 

The same voices that were not being heard before. The voices of the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, the people of color, those in a capitalist system who don’t know how to ferret their way to the American dream that’s held out like a carrot. Two things Martin Luther King said that struck me this time when I listened to the speech and read it. He still spoke of police brutality as a major issue in this country. It remains a major issue in this country and has been. We need prosecutorial reform. We need reform nationally of criminal injustice. And, I think we also have to look at this issue of poverty. As people get richer and richer and they get more ways to get richer and richer, and the poor and the oppressed stay or fall behind, we’re going to have a country in which people continue to question, how is this an American dream for all of us? And how this is a democracy when there are so many obstacles to prevent us from gaining access to our government? So many young people and immigrants who don’t even know how our government works because we don’t have civics in our classes, and social studies, and other things that will make them not only understand how the government works, but why they should invest in the working of the government as just regular people. We are here in a country that’s at a crossroads. It’s going to be, I think, very devastating to many people if the interests of the small groups of very wealthy people win.

Are we stirring up the status quo now, as Dr. King did when he said these words: “Now is the time to make real promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice?” 

Dr. King also said that there was a promissory note to which we are all heir. We are supposed to inherit it in that promissory note of democracy, which is the foundation to all the other promises. And if we don’t face this threat to democracy, large to the ideals of democracy, small to the basic idea of voting and having voting booths that work and not standing in long lines and having your vote counted without laws being passed to undermine them, then we can’t get to the other promises.

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