Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy

The full version of this joint President’s Corner column will appear in the next issue of NWLawyer.

The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and to be opposed to wrong, wherever it is. A group of people who have come to see that some things are wrong, whether they’re never caught up with. And some things are right, whether nobody sees you doing them or not.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Holidays that commemorate anniversaries all too often come and go with little fanfare beyond gratitude for a day off work and school. Let’s do better this Martin Luther King Jr. Day by reflecting on—and more importantly acting on—Dr. King’s legacy. As legal professionals, we are in a privileged and powerful position to champion access to justice and equity and inclusion for all, work that is just as vital now as it was during the civil rights movement.

While Dr. King was not a lawyer, he was a masterful activist, political organizer, and public speaker whose work, leadership, and inspiration were major contributing factors in the passage of landmark laws such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The themes of Dr. King’s speeches have an uncanny relevance to today’s headlines. In his “Where Do We Go from Here?” speech, he examined the historical moment that surrounded him and realized the connectedness of wealth and poverty to his vision for a brighter and more equitable future:

I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Where We Are Today

While there has been much growth and progress, culminating in a recent election ushering more diversity—of race, religion, experience, and age—than ever before into Congress and leadership positions, many of the injustices Dr. King fought against persist: economic inequality, racialized violence, and institutional violence.

Our nation is also facing increased tension over policies about and treatment of immigrants and refugees, including questionable tactics such as separating children from parents.

The WSBA Board of Governors called out these types of disturbing trends of societal attacks on equity and inclusion in a 2017 statement called “WSBA Denounces Recent Acts of Violence and a Reaffirmation of Equity and Inclusion Principles.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

As legal professionals, our skills and knowledge make us powerfully situated to be the group of people who stand up for right and oppose wrong. History has proven that justice and law improvement does not happen within a vacuum and benefits greatly from the oversight, involvement, and expertise of those trained in the law. WSBA, in particular, holds a deep commitment to its stated mission of serving the public and the members of the bar, ensuring the integrity of the legal profession, and championing justice. Our service to members of the bar and the public is a function that must be conducted with the broad and deep lens of equity and inclusion. We exist to regulate the practice of law AND to serve our members and the public as a professional association. It is in service to our members and to the public that we emphasize our commitment to an equitable and inclusive society.

Toward that commitment, we encourage you to seek out opportunities to advocate for justice not only on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday …but every day.

Foremost, let’s make a collective pledge to not stand silent when such passivity lends credence to hate and misinformation. As an example, the WSBA Board of Governors is currently developing a statement of solidarity to support leaders of Oregon’s specialty and minority bar associations. Our commitment demands that we clearly articulate a resolute stance and support of nonviolence.

Sign and share the ABA’s pledge for Disability Diversity in the Legal Profession or check out the many continually updated public-service opportunities.

Specific to the holiday at hand, here is a list of resources to connect with causes Dr. King advocated for that are still in need of legal champions today:

In memory of Dr. King, now is the time to recommit ourselves to justice, for, in his own wise words, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”